Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Lost and Love: Child Abduction in China

In China, you need a valid state I.D. to travel on a plane, attend university, secure a marriage license, and sign most legal documents, just like here in America (but we’re probably a lot more indulgent about things like voting). Abducted children who are trafficked into new homes are doubly victimized, because they will not be able to do any of these things without their birth certificates. They are effectively denied a future, through no fault of their own. That is definitely the outlook for teenaged abductee Ceng Shuai and Lei Zekuan’s long missing son is probably in a similar position. The two men’s related fates will lead to a bond of trust when they head out on the road together in Peng Sanyuan’s Lost and Love (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

For fifteen years, Lei has driven through China on a longshot quest to find the missing infant son who was snatched away from his grandmother. He doggedly hands out fliers and drives through town after town trailing a banner of the young baby taken shortly before his disappearance. However, when Lei spies a notice for a recently kidnapped Zhou Tianyi, he has a banner made for her as well. He is obsessed, but compassionate.

When life on the road leads to a spot of trouble for Lei, Ceng volunteers to fix his motorbike. At first, he cannot help resenting Lei as an extension of the birth parents he presumes to be negligent. However, as he comes to understand Lei’s story and his lingering pain, he slowly accepts the older man as something of a mentor. Together, they hit the road, following up leads to his possible home village posted on various abduction-resource web sites.

Evidently, the illicit trade of kidnapped infants is a growing problem in Mainland China. For victimized parents, the government’s only partly relaxed One Child policy makes it even more painful, consigning them to a permanently empty nest. Peng’s screenplay offers a peak into the criminal operations causing such anguish, but his primary focus is on the lasting emotional repercussions for birth parent and abducted child alike.

Much as he did in Ann Hui’s quietly moving A Simple Life, Andy Lau completely lets go of his movie star trappings to give a raw, earthy performance as the guilt-wracked Lei. For the most part, his work is reserved and understated, but when he fully explains what the loss of his son meant for him and his family, it is pretty devastating. Likewise, Jing Boran is completely convincing as the confused and angry, yet still down-to-earth Ceng. Viewers really get a sense that he is just a kid making his way in the world, but it is even more challenging for him, given his circumstances. Fans will also enjoy seeing “Big” Tony Leung Ka-fai turn up in a rather touching cameo as a brusque but compassionate traffic cop.

Although Peng’s roots are in television, L&L is remarkably free of manipulation and melodrama. It might be considered an issue-driven film to an extent, but it always feels more like a character study (or rather two character studies). It is indeed an intimate human interest story (supposedly based on real events), but Mark Lee Ping-bin’s arresting cinematography gives it a big, cinematic look. One of the best in the business, Lee vividly captures the expansive beauty of the countryside as well as the mean squalor of the cities. Despite some conspicuous loose ends, Lost and Love is a refreshingly mature and accessible drama, recommended for mainstream audiences when it opens this Friday (3/20) in New York, at the AMC Empire and the Village 7.