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Cinema Review: Lost Course | Under the Radar

Lost Course

Studio: Icarus Films
Directed by Jill Li

Mar 15, 2021

Web Exclusive

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An angry mob of mainland Chinese citizens chants about injustice and corrupt officials.

No, it is not a scene leading up to the Tiananmen massacre of 1989. Instead, it is the village of Wukan, Guangdong rising up in 2011 after their local leaders scandalously sold off public land. These seething protestors will remind Western viewers of the students that fatally confronted their own country’s tanks in Beijing decades ago during the stirring opening scenes of Jill Li’s new documentary Lost Course. However, the director quickly leaves audiences all the more shocked a few moments later with footage of these same Wukan protestors praising their country, its federal leadership and, above all, Chinese communism as an ideology. It’s not hypocrisy or even a contradiction, but instead a deft introduction by a promising documentarian to the nuances of Chinese politics, where local officials receive the brunt of public criticism (often rightfully so, especially in this case). Meanwhile, decades of indoctrination and the threat of swift crackdowns leave the upper echelons seemingly above reproach.

Those gripping details — which could encompass an entire doctoral thesis — are fleetfootedly chronicled by Li within the first few moment of Lost Course. The documentary’s pace does eventually slow. Yet Li packs in enough of the village’s political intrigue and closed door conversations, along with confessional interviews with the key players to make the movie’s remainder nothing short of riveting. And that’s no small feat, given its three-hour run time.

But there’s a lot to cover, and Li makes use of every moment. In the ensuing scenes local elections are held. Righteous villagers step into office, only to become ensnared in phony corruption charges from vindictive higher ups. Paranoia and snakey maneuvering among formerly united democratic activists is captured through interviews and fly-on-the-wall shot whisperings between the villages involved. It’ll all make you marvel at Li’s level of access, before forgetting that entirely and feeling entirely transported to small town southern China.

The doc is made all the more engrossing by Li’s hawk eye for detail. Prime examples include over the shoulder shots of villagers navigating potholed backroads on the vespas ubiquitous in China, or playful banter during dinners of visibly steaming bowlfuls of rice and local seafood. And the climactic footage of tensions boiling over in a marginalized Chinese village too-long on the brink are visceral enough to give you nightmares. All this and more make Lost Course and a must see for anyone curious about China or passionate about the universality of local politics and human rights.  


Author rating: 9/10

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