VIFF 2012: Mystery

This is the first film I’ve seen by Chinese director Lou Ye, and it’s the first film he was able to make in China following a five-year filmmaking ban he received for submitting his Tiananmen Square-set Summer Palace to Cannes without government permission back in 2006 (he made a couple films in the intervening years outside the Mainland). It’s a slick,, clever neo-noir melodrama, the story of a happily married woman (played by Hao Lei) who discovers her husband is having an affair with a younger woman. The young woman will end up dead, of course. That death is actually how the film opens (a car full of rich, inebriated kids driving too fast down a rain-reluged street) before moving a bit back in time to introduce the main characters (beginning with the death and then moving backwards being a classic noir structure). The mystery (ahem) of how the girl got into the street, who will take the rap for it and who ultimately bears the responsibility for her death, is the heart of the film, and it suggests several different answers to a question more metaphysical than a simple “whodunnit?”.

The style Lou uses is one of grayish colors with a lot of fast-cut, handheld shots, with occasional extreme close-ups of the main characters. Normally the overuse of the shakycam drives me up the wall, but I think Lou might be on to something with the way he uses it here. Adapting classic noir imagery to modern film style has not been especially successful, given its reliance on the chiaroscuro effects of high-key black and white lighting. A film like Blade Runner creates an overwhelmingly shadowy world, emphasizing noir’s blacks, the hidden world of secrets and crime, whereas neo-noirs like Chinatown or The Long Goodbye desaturate the color, emphasizing grays of noir, the uselessness of traditional morality in a degraded world where good and evil are inseparable. Lou, more or less keeps Chinatown‘s shadowless, overcast color palate, but adds to that the instability of the shaky cam. Instead of a secret world engulfed in shadows, we get a world were everything is out of balance, off-focus and just a bit out of sight. The vision of crime he creates isn’t one of moral darkness but one of vertigo, an inability to find focus, concentration and balance. Lou’s noir world is out of whack, a rain-swept, tottering tangle of chance and disaster.

Which leads to the major knock against the film, at least in as few places as I’ve seen it discussed: the staggering array of coincidences that structure the plot. This is a feature (bug?) endemic to melodrama: it’s important to remember that noir is, fundamentally, melodrama, and that coincidence and chance lie at the heart of many of the best noirs, from Casablanca to Touch of Evil). And not all of Mystery‘s coincidences are as simple as they appear (the first one, which sets the whole chain in motion, turns out to have been fully planned). The film ultimately ends up being about chance, about accidents and randomness and how we assign moral responsibility for effects with multiple causes, and so to a certain extent the plot requires some degree of artificiality and, for lack of a better word, “unbelievability”. But when a major plot development requires a character to leave their wallet at the scene of a crime, and apparently not notice for several days, that might be a stupid too far, especially if you happen to be afflicted with a case of The Plausibles.

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