Asia is not just a huge and still growing box office market, but also the place of origin for top-notch cinema in the recent years, so it should not come as surprise that A-list film festivals have more and more Asian films in their competition, and, as it was the case with recently finished Black Nights Film Festival in Tallinn, Estonia, to come on the very top at the awards night. Regarding its director’s reputation, as an established female filmmaker who is more than ready to criticize the inequalities in the Chinese society (as she demonstrated in her 2012 debut feature “Lotus”), and the film’s reputation as well (for winning the post-production award at Rotterdam), Liu Shu’s “Lost Lotus” was one of the most expected world premieres at the festival. However, the end result is somewhat underwhelming.
Wu Yu (Yan Wensi) is a school teacher whose seemingly harmonious life gets derailed when her mother ends up as a fatal victim of a hit-and-run accident. Wu is dedicated to her job and her students at work and is content with her life at home with her supportive policeman husband (Zhao Xuan), with whom she tries to conceive a child. Wu’s mother was a religious person, an almost fanatical Buddhist, and, after her death, Wu dives head-on into her mother’s beliefs, at first out of respect for her and her conviction, but later it starts to look like an obsession and a futile attempt for her to connect with her late mother, so strong that Wu does not even notice the inconsistencies between the preaching and the practices of the local priest.
In a parallel plot line, the police investigation of the incident drags slowly, eventually revealing that the perpetrator is an influential businessman who tries to buy off Wu’s silence with a sweet financial compensation. The offer drives the rift, already started with the couple’s attitude towards religion (Wu’s husband is a radical atheist, which might also serve as a code of sorts for his political standpoint), even further and leaves Wu alone in her pursuit of justice.
The trouble with the film starts with its script and the treatment of Wu’s actions on this front. Simply put, they are too poorly thought of and planned for a woman of her intelligence and statute. There is a high probability that the whole thing is purposely constructed by Liu as an attempt to stress her heroine’s inability to deal with the injustices of the system that is fuelled by money and steered by the power of authority, but it works only to a point. Liu puts a lot of elements and perspectives throughout the plot, like Wu’s own character inconsistency between the newly found religious beliefs and her own lack of will or wisdom to live by the codes of patience and forgiveness, but all those complex issues remain touched only in a superficial manner.
Saving grace might be found in the film’s technical elements, including Liu’s directing aimed in seamlessly building up the melodrama in character as the plot moves on. The cinematography handled by Zheng Yi focused on ordinary persons, ordinary things and ordinary locations of a nameless Chinese city serves the purpose, while Patrick Minks‘ editing is smooth with a clear sense of rhythm.
The real star of the film is, however, the Chinese-Canadian actress in the lead role, Yan Wensi, glimpsed in Tarsem Singh’s “Mirror Mirror” (2012), before landing a lead role in an immigrant drama “A Touch of Spring” (He Xiaodan, 2017). She is given a complex task to operate in different emotional registers throughout the film, but also to stay graceful while inducing the viewers’ emotions and appealing to their ratio. Her portrait of fragility and desperation of a woman left alone in a corrupt society is more than compelling.
All things considered, “Lost Lotus” is a film that stays in the limbo between its directors noble intentions and considerable ambition to deal with complex psychological and social issues on one side and the lack of nuance and eloquence to do so on the other. Topic-wise, it is a moderately important film and that is enough to propel it on an extended festival tour where it would reach the target, festival-going audience. But, in the end, it is more of a “filler” type of film than an essential watch.