China’s widespread child-abduction problem is the compelling starting point for “Lost and Love,” a road movie that offers lyrical observations of the country’s rural and grassroots landscape. Mindfully helmed and written by Peng Sanyuan, the film features Hong Kong superstar Andy Lau and promising mainland thesp Jing Boran as an engagingly simpatico duo in search of their missing loved ones. Although it soft-pedals the dire situation of human trafficking in China, the result provides poignant insight into the victims’ psychological scars. Neither a typical mainstream work nor edgy festival fare, the pic would have been destined for limited home formats if not for Lau’s fame, which has opened some doors into select overseas markets.
Peng claims her decision to make this film (supposedly based on a true story) took root in 2010, the year that saw the genesis of online civilian communities fighting child abduction. Compared with Peter Chan’s recent “Dearest,” which sizzled with tension and high-pitched emotions, “Lost and Love” takes a more modest, downbeat approach in keeping with Peng’s background in TV writing. Yet while Chan’s movie practically ignored the elephant in the room by dissociating its particular account of child abduction from organized crime, the new film at least acknowledges the existence of traffickers, however briefly and hazily. More details on how these crooks operate would have raised the interest of foreign audiences while conveying the horrific scale of their activity (press notes estimate that about mainland 300,000 children are abducted each year, feeding a $2.43 million enterprise).
The film opens with a missing-person poster for 18-month-old Zhou Tianyi, who disappeared in Fuzhou in February 2014. The tot’s mother (Ni Jingyang) lingers at a busy intersection, handing out notices to passersby. Elsewhere, farmer Lei Zekuan (Lau) has also been looking for his lost son: For for 14 years, he’s traveled north and south on his beat-up motorcycle, with a canvas bearing his son’s photo attached. He’s come to the same province on an online tip from a child-rescue NGO, and when he sees the poster, he adds Tianyi’s case to his crusade.
There are two fleeting but sufficiently chilling moments involving human traffickers. One bluntly tells her babysitter: “If the kid dies, I’ll lose money.” In another scene, she tries to fob off a baby girl on a buyer who wants a son, slashing her prices and coaxing, “Girls can be sold off when they grow up,” presumably into prostitution.
En route to Wuyi Mountain, Lei befriends mechanic Zeng Shuai (Jing), who services his vehicle for free as a supportive gesture. Peng’s ability to craft low-key yet affecting drama emerges in the scene in which Zeng blames Lei for failing to protect his son, only to delicately confide in him that he has faint memories of being abducted. Rather than contriving a melodramatic outburst, Peng has Lei recount his family tragedy in a nuanced voiceover, offering a glimpse into the universal anxieties of parents.
When Lei and Zeng embark on a trip that stretches from Quanzhou to Sichuan, the narrative broadens to offer a panoramic view of China’s less glamorous regions. Smoggy second-tier towns and forlorn fields convey the drudgery of workaday life in the sprawling country, complemented by starkly atmospheric mise-en-scene, whether it’s an old-style bathhouse or a floating fishery. Flouting the road-movie convention of throwing in motley characters along the way, the screenplay keeps a tight focus on the two protags, who develop a father-son bond that never turns mawkish.
While exploring the meaning of loss from the parent’s perspective as well as the child’s, the film also exposes how the victims’ social stigma is compounded by systemic government discrimination: Unable to prove his parentage, Zeng is denied legal citizenship and banned from tertiary education, property ownership and even the ability to take a plane or train. Notwithstanding some sentimental beats, Peng achieves a delicate balance between bleak realities and a life-affirming attitude, capped by a predictable but necessary catharsis. However, the fate of baby Tianyi remains a loose strand, marred by an abstract, over-stylized portrait of the mother’s grief. Also redundant, not to mention pretentious, is the epilogue involving a pseudo-Zen encounter with monks.
The rumor that Lau was nearly arrested by police who mistook him for riff-raff during a location shoot may testify to the actor’s zeal to look the part of the peasant, but despite a convincing makeover and studied mannerisms, his emotional delivery lacks genuine pathos. Likewise, as a child trafficker, comedienne Sandra Ng’s twitchy tics almost derail the film’s naturalistic tone. Jing, on the other hand, outshines the rest of the cast by not sweating it, limning small-town insouciance while hinting at deep emotional scars.
Craft contributions are accomplished, in particular Mark Lee Ping-bin’s arresting widescreen lensing, which has the flowing effect of a Chinese scroll painting unfolding in leisurely fashion. The soiled, dull color palette of urban towns contrasts boldly with the radiant, impeccably composed rural scenery. Angie Lam’s editing, so smooth it’s virtually transparent, brings lucidity to the layered narrative. The Chinese title literally translates as “Lost Orphan,” but according to Peng, it also puns on the word “lonely,” alluding to how the government’s one-child policy renders such losses irreplaceable while creating market demand for boys.