‘Lost Course’: Film Review

Hong Kong documaker Jill Li takes a good long look at a grassroots democracy movement in China in ‘Lost Course,’ taking its European bow at IDFA.

Some 75 miles east of Hong Kong, in China’s Guangdong province lies the coastal fishing village of Wukan. It became the center of a worldwide media story in 2011 when protests broke out over the corruption of local Communist Party officials, who were thrown out of office by angry residents, precipitating a tense police siege of the town and ultimately new elections.

But that is only part of the story told in Lost Course by first-time Hong Kong documaker Jill Li, who followed the events and their many repercussions and twists over a period of seven years. Three hours long yet anything but leisurely, the doc is charged with energy, anger and disappointment. Despite some visual longueurs resulting from the very basic, embedded shooting style, it sweeps the viewer into the center of a bold, fledgling grassroots democratic movement in the surprising setting of rural China.

The Bottom Line

Engrossing, revealing and bittersweet.

Coming on the heels of the U.S. presidential election, the film stresses ballot counting and free and fair elections, striking inadvertent parallels with American politics. It won the Golden Horse Award for best documentary in Taipei before making its European debut at IDFA in Amsterdam.

Li kicks off in the thick of things in late 2011, when exasperated Wukan villagers begin contesting provincial party officials who have been secretly selling off community-owned land. Their land, which they believe can stave off hunger and poverty if they can get it back and farm it. The protests end with a siege of the town by massive police forces who try to re-establish control, but these scenes are left quite sketchy.

In the midst of the vociferous protests, a handful of leaders starts to emerge: Bo on his motorbike in dark glasses, Hong excitedly haranguing the crowd through a bullhorn, the young photographer Xing shooting videos, old Lin Zuluan quietly assuming power like a wise Buddha. Their strategy is to hold a general meeting, go on strike and appeal to higher authorities to champion their cause.

Thousands of riled citizens flock around an open stage protected by a traditional three-tiered Chinese roof, the town’s sacred Stage of the Immortal, to hear speeches. The villagers interweave chants of “Long live the Communist Party” with “Down with the village committee,” and show themselves fearless of any consequences. At one point, a drunken Hong belts out a demented karaoke version of “The Internationale.”

By December, the authorities push back, arresting four of the leaders. Tragically, Bo (Xue Jinbo) dies in custody, and no one appears convinced by the official story that he had a weak heart. Though barely glimpsed in the film, he becomes a symbol for the protesters to rally around.

Meanwhile, we see growing numbers of international reporters on the scene, including acclaimed New York Times photojournalist Du Bin. Despite the David vs. Goliath scale of the fight, Lin is invited to a sit-down discussion with some decision-makers, and his proposal that new elections be held is accepted. The villagers are excited and the organizers ecstatic: “Happiness is when a small village is run autonomously.”

The ensuing election campaign is a heartwarming affair full of sincerity and emotion. Not surprisingly, Lin is elected village director. But he is also the local party secretary, which raises a red flag for viewers. It turns out to be not so easy reclaiming the sold-off land. And even if they do succeed, there’s not enough land for everyone. Charges of bribery resurface, and the villagers become disillusioned and alienated from politics.

Doubts distress even the core group of reformists. Hip young Xing, the photographer, opines that the government controls Lin. Hong, the goofy firebrand, resigns from the committee and opens a teahouse, then escapes from China with his wife. His whereabouts make an amusing, if bittersweet, coda to the main action back home.

It’s clear that a tremendous amount of footage and a wide cast of characters have been whittled down, and the three editors — the director, Luke To and Lau Sze Wai — do an admirable job creating a dynamic, involving storyline that makes these elections matter to the faraway viewer. Hats off to the Hong Kong producers for an engrossing piece of solid, uncensored journalism.

Venue: IDFA
Production companies: Human Images (Hong Kong)
Director-screenwriter: Jill Li
Producer: Peter Yam, Chai Sheng
Executive producer: Luke To
Director of photography: Jill Li
Editors: Luke To, Jill Li, Lau Sze Wai

179 minutes