Notes from a pilot's kid

Film Review - Lost in Beijing (蘋果)

Screenshot from Lost in Beijing


Banned from Douban Reviews, so no review score

6.8/10 on IMDb

Lost in Beijing is a story that superficially feels like a soap opera; it includes a fight over parental rights, a complicated rape scene, a seemingly endless game of revenge, and a messy love triangle. But this storyline is used by director Li Yu as a canvas for social commentary about modern life in urban China: the way money can dominate love and family, the search for opportunity and pleasure, the divide between rich and poor, and the disregard of individual agency especially for women.

The story is set up around two couples from vastly different backgrounds connected by their work. Pingguo moved from a small town to the big city and is happy to have a steady job at a massage parlour. Her husband Kun, also from a small town, works as a window-washer, beautifying the symbols of wealth that drew them and others to the city. Their income put together is enough to rent a run-down apartment and get by in Beijing. Dong is owner of the massage parlour where Pingguo works. He seems to have worked hard to build his business and is proud to enjoy its pleasureful rewards: driving a Mercedes, living with his wife Mei in a nice apartment in China’s most expensive city (though the two are now more focused on money and status than each other), and paying regularly for a young prostitute in daytime hotel visits on the side.

Li Yu creates characters that fit non-aspirational stereotypes of Chinese urbanites, men and women who are not particularly likeable but who represent two sides of Beijing that many viewers will be familiar with. In particular, with Pingguo working for Dong, the viewer is shown how much China’s nouveau-rich entrepreneurs – more interested in their gold jewerly than the well-being of their employees – control and frame the opportunity China’s poor migrant workers can seize in the city. But there are some traits all characters in the story share: a dilligent work ethic, no sense of entitlement, and a drive for earning money that they believe will decide their future.

At work, Pingguo’s close friend Xiaomei is fired on the spot by Dong for attacking a customer who had molested her during a massage. The two girls go out for lunchtime drinks not to complain about the unfairness of the firing but instead to chat about how much opportunity still lies in front of Xiaomei in Beijing. Pingguo then returns to her workplace drunk and passes out in an empty massage room. Dong discovers her in this compromised position in a scene of impossible coincidence: he rapes her right as her husband lowers himself to wash the window outside, able to interrupt but unable to intervene. Dong attempts and mostly succeeds at dealing with the incident by hushing it up with money and his power over Pingguo’s job; Kun, without such resources, resorts to pulling childish pranks on Dong and eventually seeks revenge by telling Dong’s wife about the situation in false hope that it would lead to further consequences.

The rape scene and subequent negotiations are crucial moments that set up the plot and determine how the characters will interact for the rest of the film. Kun’s job traps him outside the room but forces him to view the horrifying act inside; this physical situation both symbolizes his position in Chinese society and mimics the limitations Kun will continue to have in prying control from Dong and influencing subsequent conflict between the characters. Pingguo receives little support from Kun or others and is forced to focus on her own survival when Dong’s hush money is unexpectedly offered as a severance package. Legal action for the rape is never considered or threatened, probably because it’s not a realistic option for poor Beijing residents like Pingguo and Kun.

Pingguo then discovers she’s pregnant; the father could be either her rapist or her husband. This prospect is seen by Kun as an opportunity: if the child is Dong’s, Dong should somehow be responsible. Initially in denial, Dong becomes excited for the prospect of having a son of his own (he has not been able to have a child with his wife), and agrees to a deal with Kun: if the baby is Dong’s, Kun gets 100,000RMB for his wife’s (nonconsensual) surrogacy, and if it’s Kun’s, Dong is free of liability and life would go on. While the trauma of witnessing the rape had already led Kun to distance himself from Pingguo, the deal draws his focus further away from his wife and towards the ability to get even and receive a payout. In contrast, during the pregnancy, Dong becomes convinced the child will be his and begins pampering Pingguo to ensure the baby’s good health.

At no point during the deal and pregnancy is Pingguo (nor Dong’s wife Mei) offered a chance to have a say about what should happen to the child. This reduced role of agency for women and for a rape victim is hard to ignore, but it’s not the focus of the story. Li Yu’s focus is on portraying ethical (and even criminal) dilemmas, including those against women, as contracts and violations thereof with terms dictated by the most powerful party. Pingguo’s personhood is violated, and the cost of that violation is set on Dong’s terms. When that same violation brings Dong the prospect of something he wants, he establishes a contract to obtain what he desires with the willing party, Kun. This portrayal of conflict resolution is again a statement about the powerlessness of the poor in China in the face of the desires of those who are wealthy or who have good connections. It is also a comment about modern Chinese society that ethics are quickly brushed to the side when money is on the table; as it seems for these characters, money may be more valuable than the pursuit of justice.

Everyone in theory (at least Dong and Kun) should be satisfied, then, when a blood test reveals that Pingguo’s newborn’s father is Dong, but passing along a child in this manner proves difficult, especially for Kun and Mei. Pingguo moves in to Dong’s apartment mostly so Dong can ensure the baby is cared for properly and to keep the child nearby to show to friends. It is difficult to watch Pingguo, a rape victim turned surrogate mother, stand beside Dong and accept her role in the arrangement. Dong’s fatherly attitude with his newborn eventually spills into more affection and lust for its mother than necessary. Dong’s wife Mei confronts him about this, and he responds that he’d never leave his wife for a countryside girl, reinforcing Mei’s status-based role in keeping up appearances for him as his wife. Kun is driven mad both by realizing that his 100,000RMB does not make him feel any better about willingly giving up his wife’s child to the man who raped her, and also by the seemingly unanticipated post-birth months where Pingguo would have to live with her rapist while she cares for the baby. The story lingers in this miserable arrangement until someone decides to take action and bring resolution to a situation that continues to benefit some dream of Dong’s while geting worse for the other three.

Li Yu’s characters’ expectation that the child’s birth will lead to a simple transaction that will solve the situation is her most poignant critique of Chinese society. Marriage cannot be broken into separate contractual components that can come from different sources and be combined to bring happiness to all involved, which is shown especially through Pingguo’s role in Dong’s life. As the story illustrates, emotion and an innate human sense of morality eventually challenge the simplicity of these contracts. But with so much of society convinced that money and power will bring pleasure and happiness, Li Yu’s story paints a dystopic picture of this mentality’s affect on the traditional family in China.