Site Features
- Asian Film Awards
- Site Recommendations

- Reader Poll Results

- The Sponsor Page
- The FAQ Page
support this site by shopping at
Click to visit
Asian Blu-ray discs at

Hao Lei is at the heart of Mystery.
Chinese: 浮城謎事  
Year: 2012  
Director: Lou Ye
Producer: Chen Xi, Lou Ye
Writer: Mei Feng, Yu Fan, Lou Ye, Li Yongfang
Cast: Hao Lei, Qin Hao, Qi Xi, Zu Feng, Zhu Yawen, Chang Fangyuan, Qu Ying, Du Yanlin Liu Yihang, Yu Longgang, Zhao Bingrui, Song Ning, Wang Yiru, Ji Shiai, Du Juan
The Skinny: Opaque melodrama from Lou Ye is bouyed by exceptional acting and tension. An inconclusive end and the spiraling pessimism make this a tough watch, but there's value in this dark, compelling look at social ills and family turmoil in China. Completely uncommercial, naturally.
by Kozo:

The big mystery about Mystery is how SARFT let this one through. Director Lou Ye returns from a 5-year filmmaking ban in China (during which he made the French-produced Love and Bruises) with this drama-thriller about a bunch of people who are A) bad, or B) not that bad but still do bad things. And curiously, not everyone gets punished. No stranger to SARFT’s stringent guidelines, Lou Ye cleverly diverts attention from many potentially taboo subjects in Mystery, hiding some content and only elliptically addressing others. Then again, Mystery alludes to or features so much uncomfortable stuff – adultery, murder, corruption, homosexuality, sexual violence – that it’s easy to conclude the whole thing is a big fat middle finger directed at SARFT. But really, China’s filmmaking politics are so byzantine, we shouldn’t even try to decipher them. Forget it, Jake – it’s China[town].

Putting politics briefly aside, Mystery is more of a drama than an actual mystery, its seemingly showy plot twists ultimately giving way to acute emotion. Lou Ye constructs in immersive and realistic style the story of Lu Jie (Hao Lei), whose marriage to Yongzhao (Qin Hao) is upended when she spies him walking into a hotel with student Xiaomin (Chang Fangyan). The discovery was accidental: Lu Jie was accompanying new friend Sang Qi (Qi Xi) to talk about Sang Qi’s unfaithful husband when Yongzhao and Xiaomin just happen to stroll by. However, this is all in the past. Mystery opens in media res as an irresponsible young driver (Zhao Bingrui) joyrides in the rain and promptly sends a poor pedestrian flying. That pedestrian: Xiaomin, and her role in this domestic drama is gradually revealed by Lu Jie and also cop Mingsong (Zu Feng), whose investigation is rather half-hearted for a supposed justice-seeking law enforcement individual.

Mingsong’s reticence is hardly a plot point, but it implies darker things like corruption or the weary acceptance that China’s murky dealings are simply “the way things are.” Lou Ye’s shaky hand-held cam, natural locations and unglamorous production equate Mystery with reality, and indeed the events presented seem like they could happen – though really, not to the level of convenience presented. Many coincidences are easily justified but some – like the fact that Mingsong knows Xiaomin’s ex-boyfriend Qin Feng (Zhu Yawen) – are screenwriting shortcuts. Mystery leans towards lurid melodrama with its many plot twists, but Lou’s grounded style brings greater focus to the characters and their situations. With mostly performances as our guide, it’s sometimes hard to see what characters will do, and that opacity makes tension very strong. What are the people surrounding us really capable of? That mystery is likely the one the film’s title alludes to.

Acting is where the film really shines, particularly between Hao Lei and Qi Xi. Hao gets material fit for an award-baiting melodrama explosion, but opts for intense, simmering emotion rather than indignant histrionics. Qi Xi has arguably a tougher job, as Sang Qi is slowly revealed to be a compromised woman who challenges audience sympathy. The two actresses play off one another superbly, and manage to take their characters’ complex relationship to unexpected places. Qin Hao suffers by comparison, as his Yongzhao seems an unrealistically charismatic playboy that doesn’t fully convince. Still, damaged people like these – that is, people who are delusional, callously cruel and blindly self-destructive – do exist, and Lou Ye examines them with unflinching and also fascinating verve. In essentially the fourth lead, Zu Feng brings a lived-in gravity, though his cop character never really surpasses its obvious narrative function.

Mystery would be better if it could justify its relentless pessimism. Redemption for the film’s surfeit of unlikable characters isn’t necessary, but some acknowledgement or understanding of the film’s point-of-view might have pushed it to a higher level. The film may have worked better as a tragicomedy, where the ironic distance between the audience and the screen would have provided something tangible besides spiraling nihilism. As is, what Lou Ye has constructed is something compelling, immersive and ultimately inconclusive. Perhaps this lack of clarity is intentional, as an overt opinion on the social ills and human ugliness presented might have been frowned upon. But that’s the game you have to play in China. If Lou Ye was being inscrutably coy, then good on him: he made a provocative and intelligent film in a film industry that usually inhibits such things. In getting this much onscreen, Mystery is an accomplishment. (Kozo, reviewed at the Hong Kong Asian Film Festival, 12/2012)

  Copyright ©2002-2017 Ross Chen