Following his much-fraught debut, “The Making of Steel,” that finally surfaced outside China in ’98 in a censored but still respectable version, writer-director Lu Xuechang looks to have a smoother passage with his sophomore feature, the intriguing and easily accessible mystery-drama “A Lingering Face.” Pic deserves more fest exposure than it will probably get, as it’s neither significantly arty nor exotically set; but this clever twist on commercial subject matter still deserves serious consideration by specialized webs and film week programmers.
Pic would make an interesting triple bill with two other recent Mainland titles, Lou Ye’s “Suzhou River” and Wang Quan’an’s “Lunar Eclipse,” both of which also partly hinge on female double identity. Lu’s “Face” is closer to “Lunar Eclipse” in style, though visually less dark.
Starting off with a caption — “Route 103, Afternoon, Aug. 17, 1999” — that is to recur during the flashback structure, film follows an average young guy, Lei Haiyang (Pan Yueming, looking like a younger version of actor Jiang Wen), who’s dumped by his girlfriend and hitches a ride on the road to Beijing.
Also climbing in back of the truck is miniskirted, trashy Yanzi (Li Min), who’s running away from home in search of the bright lights.
When Lei wakes from a sleep, the truck is parked in some woods and Yanzi is seemingly being raped by the driver (Ma Xiaoqing) and his companion. Terrified, Lei scrambles into the undergrowth, and when Yanzi is dragged past his hiding place the two exchange a momentary silent look. The girl, however, doesn’t give him away.
In Beijing, Lei sees a TV report about a female corpse found in the same woods and eventually reports his experience to the police. Then, by chance in the street, he spots a girl with a wig and shades who looks just like Yanzi, even though she denies it.
That’s just the start of a weird friendship-cum-romance between the two in which layers of deceit are slowly peeled away to finally reveal the truth about what happened in the woods that sunny afternoon.
Set in average, non-touristy Beijing locations, from a backstreet garage where Lei finds work to discreet clubs where the girl entertains paying customers, the movie has a genuinely offbeat character, without any heavy underlining or condescending to the viewer. Script keeps several well-drawn characters — a canny cop (Gao Xilu), Lei’s showy former g.f., the girl’s sympathetic workmate — on the boil throughout, and the plot continues to spring surprises right to the very end.
Soundtrack amusingly uses bursts of genre-type music alongside a more magical extract from a famous Western computer game; all other technical credits are excellent. Official English title on the print is poorly chosen; the original Chinese one, which roughly means “A Curious Summer’s Day,” is much more representative.