Lost in the Moonlight
China, 2017, colour, 2.35:1, 101 mins.
Director: Xia Gang 夏钢.
Ambitious attempt at a psychological drama starts intriguingly but ends up going round in circles.
Dongguan city, Guangdong province, southern China, the present day. Jiezi (Yu Nan), who runs a hairdresser’s, comes back from visiting her parents in Hangzhou and is met at the airport by her husband Zhong Qiaobei (Namgung Min). Both can’t wait to get back to their luxury flat and have some softcore bondage sex with their favourite thin red satin rope. At 03:00 Jiezi wakes up to find two masked burglars (Pan Binlong, Wang Xiaolong) in the flat and her husband tied to a chair. He urges the burglars, who have knives, to take what they want but not to harm him or his wife. He then persuades Jiezi to let them have her bank cards and tell them the PIN numbers. They also take RMB30,000 in cash, plus some bearer bonds, rings and other items. Shaken by the experience, Jiezi lapses into a depression; all she says to Zhong Qiaobei is that the burglars were both smaller than him and one was even lame, as if she blames him for not resisting them. The following evening Zhong Qiaobei flies off to an important business meeting, leaving her alone with their live-in maid, Lian (Song Lu), who swears that she locked the front door that night and is equally mystified how the burglars got in. Both Zhong Qiaobei and his younger sister Zhong Qiaonan (Chen Yifang) suspect the maid let the burglars in. Eventually the police arrest Lian. By-the-book neighbourhood policeman Xie Gao, who knows Jiezi well, says he’ll make sure the area is patrolled. While her husband is away, Jiezi suggests Xie Gao has lunch with her, and they go to his favourite secluded restaurant. He says he would have behaved exactly as her husband did, as life is more important than heroism. At an identity parade, Jiezi identifies the two burglars, one of whom is married to Lian, and the police recover the stolen goods. But Jiezi is still obsessed by exactly what happened between the break-in and her waking to find Zhong Qiaobei tied up. She keeps meeting Xie Gao to try to find out but he insists she should forget the whole incident and move on with her life. But then Jiezi makes a surprise discovery about herself.
Traumatised by a burglary one night, a wife re-examines her whole relationship with her husband – and especially why he made no move to defend her or their property. Starting like a noirish crime drama, with a hint of kinky sex, and then morphing into a psychological study of the wife-as-potential-victim, Lost in the Moonlight 夜色撩人 is an interesting idea that doesn’t come off as a movie. Much too repetitive, with endless flashbacks to the night in question and the wife given to long moody looks and too few words, this adaptation of a 2004 novella by Xiamen-based writer Xu Yigua 须一瓜 (pen name of local journalist Xu Ping 徐苹) needs more dramatic flesh to meet the demands of the big screen. (Her novel Sunspots 太阳黑子 had successfully been adapted into the offbeat crime drama The Dead End 烈日灼心, 2015.) Ambitiously aimed at an older, more thoughtful audience, but mis-sold with a sexy, noir-ish campaign, it crashed and burned in the Mainland, taking a tiny RMB4 million.
The film marks the return to the big screen of director Xia Gang 夏钢, 64, after more than a decade. One of the lesser-known Fifth Generation names, he’s best remembered for After Separation 大撒把 (1993, aka Letting Go), a blackly comic study of a failed marriage that starred Ge You 葛优 and Xu Fan 徐帆 and was co-written by Feng Xiaogang 冯小刚. His last feature, however, was equally interesting: Love at First Sight 一见钟情 (2002), co-directed with his regular writer (and wife) Meng Zhu 孟朱, and starring Lu Yi 陆毅 and Fan Bingbing 范冰冰, was an enjoyable early example of the Mainland rom-com genre that would fully bloom a few years later.
On Moonlight Xia again works with Meng; but her screenplay shuts the viewer out instead of inviting sympathy for the wife. During the first half, too, the audience isn’t sure whether it’s watching an elaborate whodunit (did the husband stage the whole thing?), an infidelity drama (does the neighbourhood policeman fancy the wife, and vice versa? and why is the husband always away on trips?), a twisty crime drama (did something else happen that night? was the wife raped as well as robbed?) or a psychological drama (so, what exactly is the wife’s problem?). The film throws out all of the above questions, and for some of its length remains intriguing about where it’s all leading; but finally it ends up being about not very much at all, apart from a discussion on citizens’ duties. Where Xu’s novella held the reader with its “interior” writing that revealed the protagonists’ thoughts, the film is full of people mooning around or having non-conversations.
The actors, led by Yu Nan 余男 as the wife and hatchet-faced character actor Wang Qianyuan 王千源 as the friendly cop, hit their marks and say their lines as Xia shuffles them from one coolly beautiful set-up to another, courtesy ace d.p. Hou Yong 侯咏. Yu seems as confused by her character as the viewer: “trapped” wife, independent businesswoman (she runs a hairdresser’s), willing participant in some light bondage sex, or disappointed spouse? Wang looks equally frustrated by a role that’s mostly him telling her to move on with her life, instead of obsessing about why her husband didn’t “have a go” at the burglars.
But neither can do much with such thin dialogue, and a late-on flashback to the policeman’s past is too little, too late. As the husband, South Korea’s Namgung Min 남궁민 | 南宫珉, 39, is curious casting: Namgung’s plastic smoothness creates a necessary hint that the character may not be all he seems but at the end of the day he remains inpenetrable – and therefore the wife’s problem too. At least in her scenes with Wang, there’s a sense of Yu dramatically engaging with her fellow actor, even if it’s mostly via looks and stares.
Hou’s widescreen camerawork underpins the portrayal of the southern city of Dongguan as an upscale, pristine environment, no longer famed for its seedy sex industry. (The massive police crackdown of 2014 is briefly referred to in an otherwise pointless opening scene, seemingly preparing the audience for the film’s reformed portrayal of the city.) Other technical credits are equally precise. The film’s Chinese title roughly means “The Colour of the Night Is Tantalising”. The title of the original novella, 淡绿色的月亮 (“The Pale Green Moonlight”, see left), is referred to at the beginning and end of the film, to no real purpose.
Presented by Beijing Zhongkai Guanghui Cultural Development (CN), Tri-star Movie & TV Exchange Centre (CN), Bona Film Group (CN), Weiteng United (Suzhou) Media (CN), Shanghai Yunyi Network Technology (CN).
Script: Meng Zhu. Novel: Xu Yigua. Photography: Hou Yong. Editing: Zhou Ying. Music: Chang Xinnei. Art direction: Yin Xiaoming. Styling: Li Shanwei. Visual effects: Chang Jun. Sound: Lou Yatao, Wang Changrui, Wang Xuliang. Executive direction: Cao Peng.
Cast: Yu Nan (Jiezi), Wang Qianyuan (Xie Gao, policeman), Namgung Min (Qiao Bei, Jiezi’s husband), Pan Binlong (burglar in rabbit mask), Wang Xiaolong (burglar in wolf mask), Song Lu (Lian, maid), Zhang Yuanlingzi (new maid), Qu Gaowei (Biao, male hairdresser), Chen Yifang (Qiao Nan, Qiao Bei’s younger sister), Chen Zhixiong (Tao Feng), Shi Bingyuan (Xiaoyutou/Fishhead, Qiao Nan’s son), Shi Jinli (Jiezi’s voiceover), Dang Haoyu, Gao Tian (train robbers).
Release: China, 10 Mar 2017.