Money (and maybe a little bit of love) makes the world go around in “Lost in Beijing,” an involving, highly accessible portrait of an emotional menage a quatre in the modern-day Chinese capital. Third feature by Mainland writer-director Li Yu reps a striking career fulfillment by the thirty-something former documaker, following her rough but ground-breaking lesbian pic “Fish and Elephant” (2001), and her accom-plished but Euro-style drama “Dam Street” two years ago. Though pic is facing censorship difficulties within China, specialized distribu-tion, plus robust fest travel, means “Lost” will be found by offshore viewers.
As of early February, there were still doubts whether the movie would make it (and in what form) into Berlin’s competition for its skedded Feb. 16 screening, due to demands by China’s Film Bureau for a reported 10 minutes or so of cuts before getting official permission to attend. How-ever, at the end of the day, the version screened at the fest was the full international one.
Producer-co-writer Fang Li co-produced last year’s “Summer Pal-ace,” which earned helmer Lou Ye a five-year ban for competing, unau-thorized, in the Cannes fest. But apart from the censorship hoo-ha, there’s no comparison between the two pictures, especially on an artistic level.
Pre-publicity centered largely on the sex scenes in “Lost.” In fact, (a) pic has no frontal nudity apart from a blink-and-you’d-miss-it sighting of the lead actress’ nipple, and (b) all three of the early sex scenes (roman-tic lovemaking under a shower, a semi-rape, and rough marital sex) are dramatically justified and visually soft-core. Trimming any would weaken but not capsize the movie, as “Lost” has way more going for it than just that.
It’s also likely that Chinese censors are equally discomforted by other content, in particular a scene in which a doctor is shown accepting a bribe.
Title sequence, to light piano tin-klings by composer Peyman Yaz-danian (“Summer Palace”), sketches the high-rise, construction-heavy skyline of contempo Beijing before plunging into the world of Lin Dong (Hong Kong vet Tony Leung Ka-fai), a nouveau-riche entrepreneur from the southern province of Guangdong who runs the Golden Basin Foot Massage Parlor.
Among his staff of girls are Liu Pingguo (Fan Bingbing) and Xiaomei (Zeng Meihuizi), both from the same small northeastern town who’ve come to make it in the big city.
After the two girls get drunk, Ping-guo ends up in Dong’s apartment, where he clumsily forces himself on her. In a scene which, like several in the movie, marbles drama with light, absurdist comedy, Pingguo’s husband, window-cleaner An Kun (Tong Dawei), sees them from his harness outside the building.
Later, Kun has rough sex with Pingguo to exorcise his anger; more comically, he also rips the hood ornament off Dong’s beloved Mer-cedes-Benz in revenge.
But it’s money that turns out to be the common language between Kun and Dong as they settle their differ-ences. When Pingguo finds she’s pregnant, all parties — including Dong’s barren wife, beauty-parlor owner Wang Mei (Taiwan vet Elaine Jin) — sign contracts. Dong, who’s desperate for a child, will adopt the child, Kun and Pingguo will get substantial coin, and Mei will get 50% of her husband’s assets if he ever fools around again.
Script then weaves a complex fab-ric of emotional ties and business arrangements that bind the two couples into a kind of mutually dependent, extended family.
When Pingguo gives birth to a daughter, Dong, convinced the child is his, turns into a devoted, gleeful parent. As emotional ties become blurred between the four, Pingguo finds she can’t give up the child.
Pics about modern China’s money-obsessed society, and immigrants making it in the big city, are hardly new — from “Far From Home” to last year’s excellent “Luxury Car.” But “Lost” takes a new tack, neither focusing per se on the protags’ out-of-town status nor venturing into any dark, violent territory. Tight script omits any unnecessary connecting material and carves believable char-acters making a go of it in the only ways they know.
Four main thesps are aces, from Leung’s almost childlike entrepre-neur, through Jin’s bitter, waspish wife, to Tong’s boyish husband. As Pingguo (pic’s Chinese title, meaning “Apple”), up-and-coming Fan, good in recent costume actioner “A Battle of Wits,” convincingly blends provin-cial toughness with maternal softness.
Shot in bright clear colors, with plenty of handheld camerawork, film has a totally different visual style from helmer Li’s burnished, ultra-composed “Dam Street.” All other tech credits are top class.