A story of child abduction and a father's journey to find his son
The topic of child abduction is a difficult discussion to have in China for many reasons, first and foremost because kidnapping is quickly becoming a widespread business, an uncomfortable consequence of the one-child policy. It’s an unspoken part of Chinese society that is both reviled and grudgingly accepted, and the resulting black market for kidnapped children is tacitly allowed to exist (and even flourish) in order for families to avoid heavy fines for breaking the one-child policy and to obtain children by those who refuse to wait in long lines through the official state adoption process.
As such, it’s difficult to discuss child abduction and human trafficking in China, perhaps because of its widespread nature among all social strata of Chinese society.
Tackling the issue of child abduction in Lost and Love is a controversial choice for director Peng Sanyuan (彭三源) who, like his fourth-wave compatriot Jia Zhangke, sets his film amidst utopian rolling grasses, lush forests, and the dystopian urban background of southern China; such high expectations are, unfortunately, lost as it loses its meandering way through a combination of awkwardly-placed humor and a kitschy soundtrack composed of mostly Piazzola-esque Argentinian tango remixes.
Lost and Love follows an unfamiliar and non-formulaic plot arc: two protagonists, Hong Kong veteran Andy Lau (刘德华) and Jing Boran (井柏然)—respectively playing Lei Zekuan, a farmer from Anhui in his 15th year of searching for his son throughout China, and Zeng Shuai, a bike mechanic who reveals that he himself is an abducted child. Throughout their journey, to Quanzhou and then to the mountains of Sichuan, Peng injects a short revolving set of vignettes, all having to do with child abduction and the human beings involved, from victims to perpetrators.
Passerby A: You won’t find him. You won’t stand a chance this way, will you? Your son is already 17 years old. Even if you ran into each other in the street you wouldn’t recognize him. The world is vast. You won’t find him.
Nǐ zhǎo bú dào de. Xiàng zhèyàng zhǎo xiàqù, zěnme zhǎo ne? Duì bú duì? Nǐ xiǎohái dōu shíqī suì le. Nǐmen liǎng gè zài mǎlù shàng pèngdào, nǐ yě bújiàndé rèndé. Zhè mángmáng rénhǎi lǐ, zhǎo bú dào de.
Passerby B: How can you talk like that? All parents love their children. If this were your child, wouldn’t you look for him?
Nǐ zhèyàng shuō jiù búduì le, nǎge fùmǔ bù xīnténg zìjǐ de wá? Nǐ de wá diūle dehuà, nǐ zhǎo bù zhǎo?
China’s modern condition also seeps through the overly-saturated framing, and here is where Peng shines through—the B-roll footage of drive-bys of overgrown bridges and dilapidated houses in the midst of being gutted by machines of large industrial might. They candidly express an untempered snapshot of contemporary Chinese society, a place where brand new buildings are torn down and bridges left to rot, yet a place where villages have existed for hundreds of years.
Girl: He has a scar on his foot, but his classmates refuse to take us to him.
Tā de jiǎoshàng yǒu shāngbā, zhǐshì tā de tóngxué bù tóngyì dài wǒmen qù jiàn tā.
Lei: Is the boy willing to see me?
Háizi tóngyì jiàn wǒ ma?
Girl: He is rebellious and has always asked his parents if they are his biological parents…Many families in that town pay traffickers for kids. They believe more kids mean more happiness.
Tā yìzhí zhuīwèn yǎngfùmǔ tā shì bú shì qīnshēng de, hěn pànnì ...... Nàge xiǎozhèn shàng yǒu hěn duō hù rénjiā dōu yǒu mǎilái de háizi, tāmen xiāngxìn duō zǐ duō fú.
Andy Lau saves Lost and Love with a standout performance; he’s able to tease out the realities of life for a man who’s spent 15 years on the road looking for a son he still can’t find. Lau portrays Lei as a bullheaded but quiet father-without-a-son who is both quietly dismissive and emotionally drained. It’s the only way that he’s been able to stand 15 years on the road and it’s a standout and unique performance that exposes Lau’s nuanced and sensitive side.
Jing Boran is less so—perhaps a bit too well-dressed and a bit too prettily made-up to convince us that he’s anything other than a well-off actor giving monologues to the sky on being an orphan. “Are China’s orphans all so pretty?” We ask. What is impeccably established by Jing are the long-term consequences of being a kidnapped child. Zeng is unable to get an official state ID, take the university entrance exam, or even ride a train or a plane. Of this we are convinced: that the modern condition for kidnapped or stolen children is that of a have-not. And yet, Jing portrays Zeng as an optimistic and naive dreamer—he still dreams of a beautiful girlfriend, taking the exam, and finding his parents. The growing chemistry between father-without-a-son and son-without-a-father provides for a tender and sensitive coming-of-age story, the former trying to educate the latter in how to deal with the Sisyphean task of finding two people among 1.5 billion.
Perhaps most distracting to the film is the addition of comedian Sandra Ng and Ni Jingyang, the former playing a child abductor who’s trying to sell the stolen girl of the latter. This attempt to widen the narrative arc of the film a la fourth-wave, with strange and coarsely-injected black humor bungles the story.
Ultimately, what saves Lost and Love is in its scope and message: instead of focusing primarily on the immediate terror of having a child abducted, Peng looks at the long-term outlook for both the parental and juvenile victims of child abduction. It’s one of the few films that concentrates on consequences of abduction and what it does to people over time.