Mystery: a husband, wife, and lover
by Domenico La Porta
17/05/2012 - The Un Certain Regard section at the 65th Cannes Film Festival has opened with Chinese film director Lou Ye's latest feature film: Mystery [trailer]. The film marks the director's official return to filmmaking in his home country, after being banned from making films for five years by the Chinese authorities for having breached the taboo subject of the Tiananmen Square massacre in his film Summer Palace [trailer] (2006). His return to China is only "official" now because, in a show of resistance, the director did not stop working. In China, he illegally filmed the beautiful Spring Fever [trailer] (Best Screenplay in Cannes in 2009), and in France he filmed the less successful Love and Bruises (2011), screened during the last Venice Days at the Mostra.
In its title, Mystery, legally shot in China and co-produced by Parisian production company Les Films du Lendemain, already hints at a thriller. However in this film choice, which is as unexpected as it is debatable, the director and his scriptwriters (Mei Feng and Yu Fan) have decided to focus on the private drama between three characters (husband, wife, and lover), to the detriment of the purely criminal investigation and social critique that would have served to bring out the full potential of the dramatic material between their hands. Mystery could have been a classic thriller. Instead, it decides to deny a part of the genre's codes, it reshuffles the deck, and subtly plays on the side of intimism.
Lu Jie (Hao Lei, who already appeared in Summer Palace) doesn't know that her husband Yongzhao (Qin Hao), a successful executive bent on keeping up appearances, is leading a double life. One day, she sees him enter a hotel with a younger woman. But this young woman, who dies the same day hit by a car in heavy rain, is only one of her husband's many flings.
A rather careless policeman investigates the accident. Important clues are ignored during the investigation, which culminates in the victim's mother receiving a new house from the driver's millionaire family. This denouement hides a critical view of a class of nouveaux riches in China who think that they can control almost everything, including morality and justice, with the passive complicity of the authorities. But the critique is light and does not constitute the film's dramatic force. Through the use of ellipsis (so typical of his works) and a long revealing flashback, what instead seems to interest the director is exploring the mystery from inside, and relating it little by little through the reciprocally manipulative relationship between two rivals: Lu Jie, the wife, and Sang Qi (played by newcomer Qi Xi), yet another of Yongzhao's lovers.
Visually, Mystery is a film that coherently submerges its characters in rainy obscurity and tough urbanity. Most of the shots are taken by an unstable camera, and some sequences are made up of blurred images. Composer Peyman Yazdanian, with whom Lou Ye often works, accentuates the film's grave tone with a fabulous original soundtrack that clearly stands in contrast to the Asian version of Beethoven's joyous Ninth Symphony heard at the beginning and towards the end of the film. It's an ironic indicator of the false tranquility that returns to the husband's life, after this dark, but brief episode.
Mystery is sold internationally by French international sales agency Wild Bunch.
(Translated from Spanish)