‘Fifty shades of pitch black” is an apt way to describe “Mystery.” It’s a feel-awful anti-love film that should come with a huge warning label for anyone contemplating marriage or even a long-term commitment. On the other hand, it’s a raw and compelling look at contemporary Chinese society, as the emerging middle class demands more in terms of privileges, money, relationships and sex.
The bone-chilling opening scene shows rich Chinese youths racing their cars in the middle of a storm. One car runs over a woman who steps out onto the street, but they drive on. Before even thinking to call for help, they decide it’s better to go back and finish the job — a dead hit-and-run victim will cause less legal trouble than a living one.
Filmmaker Lou Ye is one of the darlings of the Cannes Film Festival, but in the real world he’s not exactly a people’s director. In fact, he was banned from filmmaking in his native China for five years, and “Mystery” is his first film set in his homeland since the ban was lifted.
The entire East Asia region has made leaps and bounds economically, but has thrown stuff like tradition, altruism and Asian modesty out the window in the process, and having to witness all that on-screen hurts plenty. At the same time, Ye’s films are redolent with Asian sensuality, set against the backdrop of humid, polluted cities and people who are hell-bent on succeeding in business and getting ahead in life. His films are also packed with hostile sex, and none of the characters are warm or nice in the Western sense of those terms.
This description is taken up a notch in “Mystery,” a dark, queasy tale of egotism and lust set in Wuhan in central China.
Protagonist Qiao Longzhao (Qin Hao) is a company man/engineer who appears to be leading a good life with his wife Lu Jie (Hao Lei) and their son. But the air is full of smog and the sky is forever gray and menacing as the story reveals that Qiao has landed his current position through his wife’s family connections and that he’s not a decent man, always checking dating sites for young women to sleep around with, and also maintaining a second household with his mistress Sang Qi (Qi Xi). An especially jarring moment comes when Lu befriends Sang because their kids are classmates!
The story spirals into a hell of deceit and jealousy, culminating in a sort of competition to see who gets to be the biggest self-serving pig of them all. No prizes for guessing it’s Qiao. He’s the kind of man who was the norm during Japan’s era of rapid growth and who novelists like Seicho Matsumoto loved to depict in all their megalomaniac non-glory. Qiao displays the hallmarks of the Asian salaryman: He’s happy to have a son but doesn’t want to raise him, he thinks women are permanent house slaves or temporary pleasure-generators, and his sense of male entitlement is unshakable.
Where does that relentless self-absorption come from? Probably a combination of off-the-charts smog, long working hours and cramped living spaces.
Been there, done that. When it comes to male supremacy and misogyny, East Asia wins — hands down.