China’s enfant terrible Lou Ye returns after a five-year government ban on filmmaking with Mystery (2012), a rain-soaked melodrama set against the disconsolate mist of Wuhan’s impetuously erected industrial landscape. Opening with an explosive car crash, Ye’s latest is a tangled wreck of moral impasses and social inspection. Slicing through a sheet of unrelenting rainfall, two modified sports cars – driven by a group of insufferably affluent kids – race through the streets of the Hubei province capital. Their recklessness is dramatically halted, however, when they fail to notice a young woman who has wandered into the road.
This incendiary intro is the catalyst which allows the lives of the Mystery’s seemingly unconnected characters to become interwoven into a narrative that employs the twin themes of film noir – infidelity and corruption – to crudely display contemporary China’s avaricious nature. Ye demands that his audience decode the ties that bind the characters for themselves, whilst employing broader narrative strokes to paint a damning portrait of a country in perpetual flux. Adapted from an online blog about a woman describing her ordeal discovering her husband’s duplicitous lifestyle, Mystery is weighed down by a fatalistic sensibility, painting each character as a victim of 21st century China’s industrialisation.
Ye’s characteristically disjointed visual style, composed of wandering camerawork and soft, wistful focus, creates a sense of physical and spiritual disorientation, stripping the film of any real intimacy. Whilst this offers a fascinating portrait about the effects that China’s newfound wealth has had on the country’s nouvelle-rich, the drearily formulaic soap opera narrative fails to bind together the film’s larger issues – focusing too rigidly on the melodrama at top of the pyramid without ever really peering behind the curtain of consumerist greed. Mystery is lurid and vivid, yet lacks the bite necessary for its tale of deception and materialism to transcend its clichéd model.
After the controversy of Summer Palace (2006), for which Ye was banned from filmmaking after depicting a romance between two lovers against the Tiananmen Square student protests of 1989, Mystery feels like the work of a director at once freed from creative inertia, yet one whose dogmatic voice has been mitigated. Overcooked and lacking conviction, Ye’s Cannes 2012 offering is, at best, a painstakingly crafted image of China’s growing addiction to capitalism. At worst, however, this study into just how cheaply moral decency can be exchanged for material riches and sexual gratification appears far too apathetic towards its socially significant message.
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