How much would you be willing to sacrifice for enough money to make you richer than you could have ever hoped for? That’s the philosophical dilemma that drives Lost in Beijing, a film that at first seems like a naturalistic drama (thanks to its shaky, handheld camerawork and faux-documentary editing), evolves into a gritty comedy of errors, and ends up as a parable of surprising emotional power.
The movie involves a quartet of characters who are forced to choose between happiness and the money they need to live, but it’s also a study of a city where western-style materialism and older traditions exist side by side: a montage of life in Beijing shows a government building adorned with a portrait of Mao Zedong, as well as neon advertising signs that glow in the dark all night long. We see a hooker wearing earrings shaped like Mickey Mouse (a sly reference to Disney’s popularity among girls in Asia), and overhear banter at a poker game where the players joke that having AIDS is proof of one’s sexual prowess.
An Kun (Dawei Tong) and Liu Pingguo (Bingbing Fan) are a young married couple who have recently moved to Beijing from the northeast in order to find work. She (Liu Pingguo) works at a foot massage parlor where she’s encouraged to flirt with the male customers in order to bring in repeat business, while he (An Kun) is a high-rise window washer. They work long hours for low wages and come home exhausted to a dingy apartment.
One day Pingguo gets drunk at work, stumbles into an empty office and passes out; she’s found by her boss Lin Dong (Tony Leung Ka Fai), who fondles her while she’s unconscious and then forces himself on her after she wakes up. In a horrifying yet believable detail, Pingguo understands that Dong could easily fire her for being drunk on the job and she desperately needs the money she earns – it’s devastating to watch as her facial expression subtly shifts from terror to acceptance.
Even worse, Kun is right outside the window when Dong rapes Pingguo. He’s furious and tries to get revenge by threatening to blackmail Dong, and he’s given even more ammunition when Pingguo discovers she’s pregnant and doesn’t know who the father is.
At this point even Dong’s wife Wang Mei (Elaine Jin) knows of his “affair”, and Dong comes up with a complex solution to placate everyone involved. He’ll pay An Kun and Liu Pingguo a small sum of money right now as an apology. After the baby is born, a blood test will determine whose child it is. If it’s Kun’s, the couple will keep the baby. If it’s Dong’s, he and his wife (who is infertile), will adopt it and pay the young couple a much larger settlement. Pingguo will live with them for a little while as a wet nurse, but if Dong sleeps with her again his wife will divorce him and get half of his assets.
Lost in Beijing has been criticized by many western film critics for being overly contrived (I’ve only just described the plot of the first 45 minutes), but I don’t think the film is aiming for any sort of ground-level realism. It’s trying to be a Dickensian melodrama, using unexpected connections between different economic castes to highlight inequalities that those in power would rather ignore.
And if the plot occasionally strains credibility, it’s even more disorienting to see how quickly Dong changes when he believes he’s about to become a father. A man who would casually rape an unconscious girl suddenly becomes a doting would-be parent, bringing pre-natal vitamins to Kun’s apartment and insisting that Pingguo not overstress herself at work. Is it really possible to like such a man (and there’s no doubt that the film considers him a devoted, caring father) when we’ve already seen that he’s capable of monstrous behavior?
To be sure, Lost in Beijing eventually forgets the rape that set the plot in motion in order to focus on the emotional conflicts that are threatening to tear the characters apart. An Kun argues that the child is his in order to wound Dong’s pride, but he slowly realizes that he might have to take care of a wife and child on his meager salary – the financial windfall that Dong is offering begins to look more enticing when he considers the alternative. Wang Mei is jealous that her husband seems more interested in Pingguo than her, but she also understands that Pingguo is a desperate young girl and that they’re both dependent on the same powerful man.
And hovering around the margins of the story is Xiao Mei (Meihuizi Zeng), Pingguo’s friend and former co-worker at the massage parlor. She’s fired for assaulting a client, and quickly falls even further down the professional ladder by becoming a prostitute. Mei cheerfully tells her friends about a man who buys her a new cellphone (with the ability to play pop songs for a ringtone!) in exchange for sexual favors, but the film clearly sees this as the absolute dead end of capitalism – she’s selling herself for luxury items she doesn’t even need.
An Kun and Pingguo, lost in their fantasies of getting rich, have already begun to look down on her, although the truth is that the two women aren’t so different: they’re both selling their bodies to men for money they badly need. Pingguo is simply luckier to have a “better” client and a more desirable product.
The acting on display here is outstanding, particularly Tony Leung Ka Fai as Lin Dong, who makes his character as likeable as can be imagined, and Bingbing Fan as Liu Pingguo, who convincingly transforms from a flirty young girl to a woman who looks like she’s carrying a terrible weight. Pingguo realizes sooner than everyone else that she’s trapped in a zero-sum game: while she isn’t naïve enough to think she can live without money, she isn’t heartless enough to believe that’s all she needs to make her life worthwhile. Lost in Beijing knows that you can’t buy happiness. But since real happiness is such a rarity, people will never stop trying.
(The only special feature on the DVD is a trailer for the film.)