In this mysterious cross-China journey, a young lady fleeing the sorrow of her recent past abandons her Tibetan trek in favor of a road trip with a stolen lobster. This captivating but sometimes perplexing trip resists easy dissection but is laced with hints and clues. It is an episodic, quirky narrative that often appears to develop between dreams and reality in the hinterland. Audiences willing to go along for the journey may not all arrive at the same place; this isn’t the type of cinema that comes with a map.
The feature debut from Queena Li has a loopy eccentricity that recalls Guy Maddin at his most bizarre. Similarly, Li’s boldness in blending weighty emotional themes with moments of playful humor (a luridly colored lobster’s-eye-view montage of the crustacean’s journey from the sea is a particular joy). Li’s strange vision will almost certainly find lovers in the confines of the festival circuit. Still, the film’s distinctive appeal may be diminished in the open waters of any other distribution.
The principal character, played by dynamic androgynous singer-songwriter Leah Dou (who also contributes to the film’s soundtrack), goes unnamed. We put together a few details from fragmented flashbacks, such as her being a musician. On her birthday, she checks into a posh Lhasa hotel. And there’s a gorgeous, wounded kid (Kailang He) who haunts her memory, especially in a repeating scene in a lovely swimming pool. We presume he is the reason she has started on the adventure, although nothing is mentioned directly.
The girl has hidden from the rest of the world behind a pair of repurposed swimming goggles. Her attention is drawn to the predicament of a lobster imprisoned in a tiny display tank at her hotel. The creature is referred to as a ‘Sacred Rainbow Lobster.’ “People who view the lobster will be alleviated of their pain,” the hostess adds while fighting off a boisterous businessman who is keen to consume the creature.
Perhaps it’s the mention of suffering – the girl has a lot of it – or a fleeting moment of connection with the beast, but the following day she’s traveling south in a used cab, the lobster in a bucket on the front seat. Her goal is to release it in the waters where it was caught, under the watchful eye of the Ming Island Lighthouse. But, as with so many road movies, the focus is the trip rather than the destination.
The picture makes good use of the vast, befuddling panoramas and oppressive sky, shot in stunning, high-contrast black-and-white widescreen with occasional bursts of vivid psychedelic color. It’s a beautiful place to get lost in. Along the way, she meets an eclectic cast of people, including a striking wig seller (a cameo by writer and director Khyentse Norbu) who gives her a new identity. A young monk who cites poetry, an American on horseback who invites her to a feast, and a pregnant girl who cadges a lift. At one point, she frees a tethered elephant.
The fluid, eddying narrative and dreamlike overlay visuals contribute to the impression that at least some of this is being processed by the woman’s subconscious. However, it may go deeper. Perhaps she and the suicidal kid are the same people; maybe the razor she drops at a monastery at the beginning of the video terminated her life; perhaps the voyage is to the afterlife rather than the ocean. In some strange manner, the film manages to marshal its wandering strands into a conclusion that provides a feeling of completion and relief.