Cannes 2012 Review: Lou Ye's MYSTERY Should be Retitled MELODRAMA

Brian Clark, European Editor
Lou Ye's Mystery begins with a forceful jolt: While making out and driving at the same time (during a torrential downpour, no less), some rich kids smash into a mysterious girl as she stumbles around in the middle of the street. Directed with bravura and visceral intensity, it is certainly the best opening of a bad film that I've seen in a long time.

But alas, despite some intriguing ideas, the plot of Mystery soon stalls and devolves into a convoluted adultery melodrama that finds Ye relying on flashbacks and point-of-view shifts to cover for obvious plotting that sacrifices most of the film's intrigue and suspense early on. Also, while the film was apparently based on real stories that co-writer Mei-Feng found on the internet about everyday Chinese life, most of the psychological complexity gets lost as Ye and Feng labor to hammer the tales into the mystery genre.   

After the car accident, the film swoops back in time and introduces Lu Jie (Hao Li from Ye's Summer Palace) and Yongzhao (Qin Hao from Ye's Spring Fever), a reasonably-happy middle class couple with a daughter who, for the moment, have no connection to the car accident before. Then, while meeting a new friend, Sang Qui at a restaurant, Lu Jie sees her husband entering a hotel with a young women. No prizes for guessing that the woman soon ends up dead after being hit by some speeding rich kids.

From here, the film bounces between a marriage crisis surrounding Yongzhao's double life and a half-baked police procedural involving the car accident. The movie's  pace stops dead in its tracks during the latter, which contains little mystery, since we know more about the case than the police, and doesn't go deep enough to make a mark as a damning police-exposé along the lines of Hong-jin Na's Chaser.

There are, to be fair, some startling and even thought-provoking revelations about Yongzhao during the second half of the film, but they sound better on paper than they play out on screen. This is partly because, while the actors are impressive, they're not given much to do besides react to the events that unfold, and their reactions are never particularly surprising. In fact, each character seems to have been exclusively developed with the purpose of advancing the gears of the plot, and there's almost nothing endearing, unique, or complicated about their motives and reactions at any point during the heaps of dramatic twists.

Mystery is Ye's first film shot with permission in China after he was banned following the steamy, censor-provoking Summer Palace.  To his credit, he makes great use of the dreary urban locations and gray, rainy weather. While it's not the cheeriest place, the hand-held cinematography and locations fully immerse the audience in a Chinese neo-noir wasteland. He also levels some pointed criticism at modern Chinese society and institutions, most obviously a in a bit where the rich kid from the car accident pays off the police to get himself off the hook for reckless driving. The fact that China approved the film is actually one of its more interesting aspects.

But, like most of his other movies, Ye prefers mostly to let the personal stand for the political here. The problem is that, with a few exceptions towards the end, the film's emotional beats seem more as if they were born out of log lines for plot twists than out of the deepest parts of the human psyche.
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