Lost in Time (2003) Movie Review

Derek Yee’s “Lost in Time” is like a gust of fresh air washing over the Hong Kong movie industry, cleansing it of the foul stench of Popstar-itis that has been plaguing it for the last couple of years. If the great unwashed of moneymaking schemes (or “films”, as the purveyors of such schemes call them) starring fresh-faced, bubbly and peppy teens with shiny smiles has dulled your enthusiasm for Hong Kong films (as they have mine), then have faith. “Lost in Time” is the kind of honest, genuine, touching, and — most of all — adult drama that will make you re-discover why this niche called “Asian Cinema” was such a revelation all those years ago.

Could it possibly be that good? Yes. It is that good.

The film is headlined by Cecilia Cheung, who once again proves that, given the right material and the right director, she is one of the most under appreciated and natural actress in Hong Kong. Cheung plays Siu Wai, a young woman whose fianc’ (Louis Koo) is killed in a bus accident, leaving her stranded with her fianc”s young son. Although Siu Wai soldiers on, even taking over the fianc”s minibus business to earn a living, she is very much over her head. Ill-tempered, stubborn, and at the same time unyielding to her grief, Siu Wai refuses to acknowledge that she is wholly unprepared for the rigors of single motherhood.

Siu Wai’s salvation comes in the form of fellow minibus driver Dai Fai (Ching Wan Lau), who was the last man to see Siu Wai’s fianc’ in the aftermath of the accident. After a tenuous and platonic relationship develops between them, Dai Fai takes pity on the young woman and becomes involved in her life. What starts out as an honest attempt to help her survive on the job becomes something more, although the two are always on the alert to separate themselves from any emotional investment in each other. They are both still scarred, and a romance is the last thing either one wants at the moment — although it might just be what they both need.

“Lost in Time” proves to be heartbreaking and heartwarming at the same time. The script avoids all the usual pitfalls of genre conventions, deciding instead to show a series of events that flows naturally, without any sense that things are being forced. Siu Wai is no superheroine, and although the death of her fianc’ has spurned her to take more control of her life, she is nevertheless unprepared for the burden. But if Siu Wai’s pitiful attempts at responsibilities leave her a mess, it stuns her family even more. Her parents don’t believe she’s capable, and her mother sneaks into her apartment each day to leave food and cooking instructions. Also, her sister can see no good in Siu Wai’s newfound responsibilities and is not afraid to tell her so.

If Dai Fai’s assistance helps Siu Wai to survive, it also illuminates the gap between her attempts at self-preservation and her inability to make it happen. The futility of her own shortcomings drives Siu Wai crazy, but it drives Dai Fai even crazier. As for Dai Fai, his life is equally a mess despite the polished and orderly condition of his large but empty apartment, and a woman’s voice on his answering machine seems to be the key to understanding him. If he’s not interested in Siu Wai sexually, why is he so persistent in helping her? What are his motives? The film guards Dai Fai’s personal thoughts almost as much as Dai Fai guards his emotions.

Anchoring “Lost in Time” is two of Hong Kong’s brightest mainstays. Cecilia Cheung proves again that she’s genuinely talented and not just another pretty face. Her last great film was the South Korean “Failan”. I won’t say if Cheung’s tour de force performance here rivals her turn in the other movie, but I can say that “Failan” now has some company. Of course working opposite a talent like Ching Wan Lau (“Running Out of Time”) doesn’t hurt. It’s not a surprise that Lau gives a heartfelt and effortless turn as Dai Fai; it would only be a surprise if he didn’t. The man is that good.

“Lost in Time” was directed by Derek Yee, who also helmed the Leslie Cheung film “Viva Erotica”. Yee’s direction is flawless, moving the film along at just the perfect pace, never rushing things and never making any mistakes along the way. Running at around 110 minutes, “Lost” takes its time, moving slowly from point A to point B, but doing so in such a way that the film is never boring and never loses momentum. If there is one nitpick it will be the use of a constant piano in the soundtrack; while the instrumental eventually recedes into the background, becoming a part of the movie, the first 30 minutes or so are too noticeable. Then again, the occasional piano keys do keep the film from becoming stale.

The other person who deserves accolades is James Yuen, whose script never forces anything and never makes the characters do anything they shouldn’t. It’s the brutal honesty about Siu Wai’s stubbornness and her inadequacy that makes the film stand out from all the pre-fabricated, pre-marketed, and pre-demo whoring that goes on routinely in the Hong Kong film industry. Even when the film is sad, it’s not depressing. Even when it’s light, it’s not silly. Sometimes the film seems on the verge of making a mistake, but it never does.

All of the above is not to say that the film travels where we want it. It’s just that the film travels so naturally to where it wants to go, that we accept it without question when it finally gets there.

Derek Yee (director) / James Yuen (screenplay)
CAST: Cecilia Cheung …. Siu Wai
Paul Chun …. Siu Wai’s Dad
Mei Yee Kong …. Siu Wai’s Sister
Louis Koo …. Ah Man
Ching Wan Lau …. Dai Fai

Buy Lost in Time on DVD