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Lost in Wu Song
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by Jay Seaver

"Indie films are usually disasters; at least, indie films-within-the-film."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2006 FANTASIA FESTIVAL: We're getting closer to being able to make the film we imagine independently, but we're not there yet, not by a long shot, at least not in any consistent way. As nice as it is to read stories about guys who make a great animated film on their home PCs, or of a cast and crew working for nothing but a share in the finished film, we hear about them because those situations are unusual. Most of the time, getting a movie made is very difficult, especially for someone who lacks experience.

Like, say, Men De Song. Like many boys in China, he idolized folk hero Wu Song, who slew a tiger with his bare hands and took fatal revenge on those who killed his brother (said brother's wife and her lover). He intends to make the definitive film of this legend and then, his life's work complete, retire to become a Buddhist Monk. But he's having trouble casting the lead part - nobody in the massive open audition that starts the film had what he was looking for. The major investor wants to cast pop star Li, but he becomes set on Wang Dachuan, the muscular but dimwitted cousin of one of his minor investors. As the film goes on, De Song and Zhang (the major investor) will clash over that and every other aspect of the filmmaking process. He also has to deal with the advances of young actress Mei Li, who would play the treacherous Pan Dailan.

Lost In Wu Song was shot on 16mm film and screened on video, and frequently looks as low-budget as it is. That it got made at all is impressive; writer/director Lu Yi Tong is making his debut here and shot his film independently, which I imagine is even harder in mainland China than in America. It's still a remarkably confident debut, one which takes a jaded look at both a cultural archetype and the filmmaking process and has a great deal of fun doing it. It's laugh-out-loud funny enough that one might not realize it's mocking the Wu Song legend until later. It's a shame the film is evidently having trouble finding distribution in its own country despite doing well on the festival circuit.

Consider how much it does with De Song's sexuality without ever really explicitly referencing it. He's thirty and still a virgin, ostensibly because he intends to enter monastic life after completing his film. When Mei Li tries to seduce him, he attempts to send her away but can't make her go, and winds up collapsing with an asthma attack. He's obsessed with the story of a muscular superman, and insists upon a particular burly man playing the part. One could infer that he's been in the closet his whole life, but what to think of the end, when he seems to reject Dachuan to try to find Mei Li... Only to later say that he feels tingly when he thinks of Wu Song? Is he accepting his sexuality, trying to grasp on to a straight life, or still confused?

But you don't have to pick at minutiae that don't necessarily mean anything to find pleasure in this film. It's been said that it takes smart writing to make stupidity entertaining, and there are plenty of laughs to be found from Dachuan's really astounding dumbness. There's a hilarious scene where De Song tries to basically explain method acting to Dachuan, who appears to be dim enough to honestly believe whatever De Song says about him being the real Wu Song and Mei Li being the real Pan. It's dangerous funny, because the scene they're rehearsing is where Wu Song stabs Pan, and Dachuan has broken the prop knife, necessitating the use of a real one...

We do kind of like Dachuan, even though he's an object lesson in how Wu Song in today's world would be seen as little more than a violent brute. He means so well, and he's so loyal and contrite after a drunken episode that we're tempted to not judge him too harshly. That kind of ambiguity applies to all the characters. Our first instinct is to side with De Song over Zhang, the artist over the money guy, but De Song is so stubborn and inexperienced that while Zhang clearly goes too far, someone really does seem to need to rein De Song in. Mei Li initially seems like little more than a scheming vixen, but does seem to grow fond of De Song. Restaurant owner Lin Liu always seems star struck at the idea of making a movie, but is probably the only person who can hold the production together.

Good job by all the cast, although I'm having a difficult time matching actor and character names. I think De Song is played by Yu Ai Lei, Dachuan by Ma Jing Jing, Lin Liu by Chi Nai, and Mei Li by An Jing, but I'll happily stand corrected if someone knows otherwise. It is, I suppose, a demonstration of just how independent a film Lost In Wu Song is: Finding reference data for a review when you can't read the credits is difficult.

Does De Song actually get his movie made? It almost doesn't matter. By the end, we're less enamored with the idea of a Wu Song movie, even if it has been a treat getting to know the people who would make it.

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originally posted: 07/12/06 01:21:49
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 Fantasia Film Festival For more in the 2006 Fantasia Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Lu Yi Tong

Written by
  Lu Yi Tong

  Yu Ai Lei
  Ma Jing Jing
  An Jing
  Chi Nai

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