Zhang Yibai (Curiosity Killed the Cat) directs the curiously-titled Lost, Indulgence, a delayed Mainland drama made notorious by cancellations at both the Hong Kong International Film Festival and the Udine Far East Film Festival. The film finally premiered weeks later at the Tribeca Film Festival after getting approval from SARFT (State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television), but its multiple false starts give it an air of loaded expectation. Is there something going on in Lost, Indulgence that makes it problematic for China's notoriously prickly film approval board?
Having seen the film, I would say "possibly" - but that thought comes with the multiple caveats that I don't understand what makes China's film approval board tick, plus I have no idea what, if anything, was censored in the film. Regardless of any raised eyebrows from admittedly overcritical cinema readers, China finally let the film pass. If there's still stuff in there casts a negative light on China, they either A) let it go, or B) completely missed it. Now that the film is finally here, we can judge for ourselves. Lucky us.
Lost, Indulgence takes place in rapidly industrializing Chongqing, and details the intricate and fragile relationship between three people stricken by a sudden and initially inexplicable loss. Cab driver Wu Tao (Eric Tsang) drives his taxi into the Yangtze River, leaving both wife Li (Jiang Wenli) and son Xiao-Chuan (Tan Jian-Ci) alone and without financial support. The third victim of his apparent death is Su Dan (Karen Mok), a club girl who was riding in the taxi when it took its unscheduled swim.
Su Dan is hospitalized as a result of the accident, her leg fractured in multiple places. She may be crippled for life, and has no family or other means of support. Wu Tao's body is missing and probably somewhere at the bottom of the river, and while the family waits for news of his corpse or, optimistically, his hale-and-hearty return, Li offers to fulfill the family obligation to Su Dan by letting her move in while she recuperates. They live in a factory where Li serves as a medic, and the family flat is small and cramped. Su Dan's wheelchair makes it tough for her to get around, but this new, makeshift family does their best to get along.
That is, except Xiao-Chuan. Young and sullen, Xiao-Chuan is going through that difficult stage that post-adolescent youth are prone to. He has an unrequited crush on a flirty classmate, and his missing or dead father preoccupies him. He initially isn't too fond of Su Dan, but something about the mysterious houseguest starts to win him over. It may be that the budding young man is attracted to her always-exposed legs (Karen Mok has tremendous legs, even when one is fractured in multiple places), but aside from her sexuality he may also be affected by her outsider status to the family.
Change is prevalent in both Li and Xiao-Chuan's lives - as it is in rapidly modernizing Chongqing - and everyone is working to keep up, trying to process everything that comes along. Xiao-Chuan is coming of age, questioning his parents and even his place in the world. Li struggles with the loss of her husband, her two jobs, the drop in their income, as well as a personal development she didn't quite expect.
Li also experiences a possible romantic connection with a Hong Kong transplant (Eason Chan), who shows up at her other job - Li works the night shift at a veterinarian clinic - and berates her for letting his dog die. The resolution to that conflict is surprising and even quietly touching, revealing a great deal about the characters and their lives through action and incidental conversation.
Zhang Yibai's strengths are apparent in that scene, and it's his handling that makes Lost, Indulgence a compelling and sometimes surreal look at individuals, their relationships, and how they mash together to create the mess that is life. Xiao-Chuan, Li, and Su Dan are all rendered well, and appear sympathetic even though they may not act that way all the time.
The two actresses are particularly good, creating characters and personalities through performance and emotion, and not revealing dialogue - of which the film has very little. Characters are challenged, make decisions, and reach conclusions, but very little is actually conveyed in the script. Lost, Indulgence is a bit opaque in its storytelling, leading us down its path through its the characters, their actions, the settings, and the camera's quiet, observant gaze. There's some tension and mystery present, but it threads through the film rather than pushing it forward. Ultimately, the journey of these three souls is more revealing than any destination.
However, Lost, Indulgence does proffer a destination, and when it finally arrives, it proves to be impenetrable and not very fulfilling. Xiao-Chuan is apparently a better investigator than any policeman in Chongqing, and soon realizes that there was a long gap between the time his father picked up Su Dan and the moment the taxi plunged into the river. Xiao-Chuan wants to know what happened in that period of time, but Su Dan is not forthcoming. Even odder, his mother is seemingly not curious about the incident at all, though she soon becomes concerned that her son and their leggy houseguest may be getting too close.
Events and incidents do occur within this new makeshift family, but the exact details of their predicament - the whys, hows, and more than anything, the complicity of each person - are never truly conveyed. Despite following around this trio of characters for a good period of time, we never receive conclusive truth of what when down that fateful morning when Wu Tao drove into the Yangtze. That unwillingness to answer Xiao-Chuan's lingering questions could leave some viewers unsatisfied and even unhappy.
That lack of forthcoming may not entirely matter, though. Lost, Indulgence never sells narrative over character, nor incident over emotion, and discerning viewers still have much to gain from Zhang's opaque yet evocative look at Chongqing and its people. If characters and relationships are Zhang Yibai's main concern, then he represents them beautifully, creating people and situations that come to matter -regardless of what, how, or why they are the way they are. Each character alternately challenges and affirms the other, and each has a story to tell. Even the presumably dead Wu Tao is fleshed out, if not in actual interaction with others then via his omnipresent portrait on the wall, its expression changing subtly every few scenes.
A good deal can also be gleamed by what the characters aren't telling us, and in many ways that silence is the most telling thing about Lost, Indulgence. The film's most dominant image (besides Karen Mok's legs) is of an unfinished bridge, its two sides reaching towards each other over the Yangtze. The bridge is never seen completed; like the relationships in the film, a gap always exists between the two sides, and yet they continue to reach towards each other, hoping one day for connection, or maybe just that elusive truth.
Lost, Indulgence seemingly has many details that could bother a government interested in only the best depiction of its beloved country. The characters in Lost, Indulgence are identifiable and sympathetic, but there's also a pragmatism to them that says a lot about the society they live in. Zhang Yibai's characters are marginalized, sometimes by themselves, but their downtrodden status also exists due to their class and their location, indicating that the disaffection they feel may have everything to do with living in a rapidly changing, even dehumanizing place like modern China.
Or maybe not - after all, SARFT is famously reactionary, so maybe there's neither smoke nor fire in the film that finally got released. A better question would be if Zhang Yibai and company made any decisions - like omitting the truth about Wu Tao's fate, or simply obscuring it - in order to prevent themselves from possible censure by China. Nowadays, it's easy to read preventive moves by filmmakers into any film requiring SARFT approval, making accurate film criticism a virtual impossibility.
Rather than suspect that Zhang Yibai made any choices to preempt a SARFT ban, let's just assume that the film was made exactly the way he wanted it to. With those parameters in place, Lost, Indulgence is an atmospheric, affecting and ultimately inconclusive portrait of regular people and their extraordinary, obscured lives. (Kozo, reviewed at the Hong Kong Summer International Film Festival, 2008)