Luo Li’s Li Wen at East Lake is many things and no one thing. It’s part documentary, part fiction. Its documentary parts are infiltrated by fiction, just as its fictional parts are infiltrated by elements of the real – although to what degree is often left purposefully ambiguous. What results is a playful, constantly surprising mix of form both liberated and enriched by Luo Li’s particular method of precisely controlled creative anarchy, standing up as one of my favourite new films, and some of the most exciting cinema I’ve seen come out of contemporary China. Irreverent, intelligent and formally ingenious, it’s a shame Li Wen at East Lake is unlikely to see a wider release, and that Chinese-raised, Canadian-educated Luo Li’s previous films remain largely unavailable.
The film begins as a kind of broad investigation into the recent history of urban development surrounding East Lake in the fast-growing central Chinese metropolis of Wuhan.1 Bringing up a screenshot of East Lake on Google Maps, Luo Li quite literally situates us in ‘real’ modern-day China, building this documentary foundation by featuring what seems like real interviews with locals and shots of recent developments surrounding the lake such as the abominable eyesore that is the Happy Valley amusement park and numerous towering apartment complexes. Despite there apparently being regulations against doing so, the lake keeps getting filled in to accommodate these developments, which is shown using a time-lapse of satellite imagery (again from Google) showing the lake’s ever-diminishing borders.
This first section ends with a committee of ‘experts’ meeting to discuss filling in East Lake to build a second airport for Wuhan. Wuhan is growing, they say, and one international airport is simply not enough to service the needs of such a large city, and East Lake is the most logical place to put it. The way the committee discusses the preposterous proposal with such nonchalance immediately rings alarm bells as to the meeting’s authenticity, and as such asks the audience to call into question all the information they have been given previously. Following this scene, at about half an hour in, a title card finally appears on screen, signalling the beginning of Li Wen at East Lake, fictional drama.
The following scenes see a man we were previously introduced to as an interview subject transform into the film’s protagonist – the corpulent, chain-smoking, perennially disgruntled, yet somehow quite charming Li Wen (played by artist Li Wen). He’s an artist, policeman and collector of photographs from the Cultural Revolution, who’s been tasked with finding and silencing a local “crazy man” who’s been spreading rumours of a mythical dragon recently resurfacing in the lake. We follow Li Wen on various outings, first as he engages in a hilarious, heated debate on issues of heterosexuality and masculinity with a gender studies student,2 conducts his investigations, paints in his (real-life) studio, hangs around the lake, seemingly torn between his professional duty to repress this “crazy man” and his fanciful myths and his own artistic, anti-authoritarian instincts. Credit must be given to both Luo Li’s excellent screenplay and Li Wen’s performance in creating the fictional Li Wen, a man and a myth himself whose life seems caught between humour and sadness, compliance and rebellion.
The film ends with a shot of Li Wen going for a swim in the lake, having tracked down the rogue dragon myth-spreading man. A van pulls to a stop in the very background of the frame, easy to miss, and a group of men get out and start running. Are they apprehending the dragon man? We can only assume. It’s a fittingly ambiguous end to a film of such formal fluidity, and an image that’s stuck long in my mind. Li Wen at East Lake is a truly fascinating study of the strange, challenging realities of contemporary China, offering a compelling, poetic blend of art and politics, documentary and fiction, the mythical and the real.
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