Opening this year’s Un Certain Regard programme, Mystery returns festival veteran Lou Ye to Cannes for the fourth time, having screened Purple Butterfly, Summer Palace and Spring Fever in the main competition in past years, and after being banned from filmmaking for five years by the Chinese government. Though he is on less provocative form here than previously, he does still sneak in a criticism of the Chinese justice system and the somewhat distasteful practice of private settlements overriding criminal prosecution.

His story here focuses on Lu Jie (Hao Lei), a happy housewife whose life is shattered when she discovers that her husband (Hao Qin) is having an affair. The story isn’t quite that conventional however, as it is framed by an explosive event – the death of her husband’s mistress under the wheels of a young rich playboy’s car – and when murder is suggested, the film quickly sets about solving the mystery of her death, despite the almost nullifying influence of the police force, at the same time further unraveling Lu Jie’s own story and the complex deceits of her husband.

The film employs something of a piecemeal approach to storytelling, with what amounts to a soap opera story revealed slowly in the manner of a tree shedding its leaves. Like a soap opera, we are fed the same sensationalist story elements: duplicitous sexual activity, interweaving relationships, murder, and deceit, but the slow-burning approach, and the director’s stark, authentic approach to filmmaking leaves all sense of bluster at the door.

Instead the film relies on more subtle methods, relaying every action through a human reaction – to hide the broader picture and ensure that emotion is the strongest force in the story. For the majority of the film, until the moment of revelation near the end in fact, everything is shot tightly, with very few wide shots; it’s only when the titular mystery is revealed that the composition changes to include any.

This approach helps keep the story tied up with its characters and adds weight to each revelation that the narrative offers (the mysteries involved are more than a single death), but it also adds focus to every decision that Lou Ye has made, from cinematographic to expositional, and unfortunately when something looks like a misplaced step it threatens to derail focus. It doesn’t happen very often, but there are a few occasions when it is difficult to tell exactly what the director was trying to say. And vagueness like this should be the enemy of any storyteller.

Continuing the soap opera parallel, the film’s sympathies seem to jump from character to character, to the extent that it is often difficult to know who is supposed to be the recognizable protagonist, and even who the villain. Surprisingly, it’s actually to its credit as we are never quite sure who we are supposed to be rooting for (even the adulterous husband is presented as sympathetic at times), and when the revelation comes, it is all the more engaging. The drip-feed approach does come at a cost though, and the film feels almost painfully long at 100 minutes, especially when the majority of that run-time is at a pedestrian pace. But again, the slow pace has its function, with story elements revealed so slowly, and emotional reactions so purely shot, the unknown elements of the story bear down with almost claustrophobic impact.

In what will probably be recognized as the central role, Hao Lei is very good as Lu Jie, emotionally broken and with a potentially dark undercurrent simmering beneath her raw surface. To the film’s benefit her performance is complex enough to carry the necessary weight, and to suggest that she might just be capable of more than she initially appears. Alongside her Hao Qin is impressive as the adulterous husband: his performance is also multi-layered enough to ensure that he isn’t immediately cast off as a villain, despite his many transgressions, and there remains more than a prick of humanity about him.

All in all, Mystery is a very modern murder mystery story, though it replaces the traditional detective figure with other involved characters to add a more claustrophobic feel to proceedings and to add even more emotional weight to subsequent revelations. After all, when the justice system is as corrupt as Lou Ye paints it here, there is far more at stake for those emotionally involved in crimes and indiscretions than the mere satisfaction of the law.

Lou Ye deserves considerable accolades for the fresh, and involving way he weaves his soap opera-style story, and the cast’s performances are all strong enough, but it seems that director felt there was a little more intrigue in the story than there actually was.

The Upside: A new approach to the murder mystery, and technically, it is a very impressive accomplishment.

The Downside: The plodding pace makes 100 minutes something of an endurance.

Grade: B

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