I’ve seen a lot of strange movies in my time, but none quite like Double Xposure. Directed by Li Yu and released in China last year, it’s a murder mystery locked in a mind twist that becomes a melodrama fading in surrealism only to rediscover itself as a daughter-father bonding film. Before I dive in, I’ll warn that there are plot spoilers in this review, merely by the fact that so much of what I have to say revolves around these twists and turns.
The first third of the movie was by far the most interesting. The heroine, Song Qi, works as an assistant at a plastic surgery clinic. She’s in love with her boyfriend, Liu Dong, but suspects him of infidelity with her best friend, Xiao Xi, who has a reputation for devouring men. When Song Qi’s worst suspicions are confirmed, she murders Xiao Xi and buries her in the courtyard. Later on, when the police come to investigate, she swaps facial plans for a woman undergoing plastic surgery so that she looks identical to Xiao Xi. Song Qi tries to convince the police officer that this woman is Xiao Xi, all the while wracked by her guilt.
It’s a fascinating premise and I was immediately drawn in, feeling invested with Song Qi, wondering how she was going to escape her fate. Think Nip/Tuck meets Time (a haunting Korean film revolving around plastic surgery) and 2046 by Wong Kar-Wai, and you can get a sense for flow of the movie. The visuals have the vibrancy I’ve seen present in much of contemporary Asian cinema; lush colors and strongly contrasted lighting, especially in the nocturnal apartment scenes that resemble night clubs more than domiciles. Fan Bingbing plays Song Qi beautifully and as her jealousy warps her mind, she becomes convincingly neurotic, arousing both a sense of disgust and empathy.
Unfortunately, the whole thing comes crashing down when the audience discovers that everything that happened was solely in Song Qi’s mind and the murder scenario was a nightmare spurred by childhood trauma. There is a real murder mystery at the heart of the movie, but we can no longer trust the narrator or even the direction of the film. Reality is upended, but not in a satisfying, Lost Highway, sort of way where there’s order in the chaos.
The biggest problem is that the whole middle of the film is spurred on by a gimmick that I’ve never really much enjoyed— the metaphysical meandering that questions, is any of this real? It makes for a fascinating philosophical exercise, but not so much when it comes to the cinematic experience. Jacob’s Ladder and the above mentioned Lost Highway are examples where it sort of worked, though both pushed the patience of more discerning audiences. Double Xposure didn’t need any of it. I can think of a handful of strong movies that were weakened by these unnecessary mental twists. I’ll name two even though many more come to mind; Identity would have been a stronger murder mystery if it weren’t all part of a dissociative identity disorder, and Super Mario Bros. 2 wouldn’t be so maligned if it hadn’t all been part of Mario’s nightmare. (OK, the latter was just a NES game based on a port of another Japanese game, but I’m still annoyed by the ending). I found both entertaining, but the ontological conundrum seemed superfluous, distracting from the narrative, a reversed deus ex machina that was a cheat at best.
Double Xposure made me feel cheated. The remainder of the movie turns into an exploration of a tragedy concerning her father, her guardian, and her mother, a far less interesting story compared to our protagonists. A journal made by her guardian reveals the ‘reality,’ which turns out to be a mirror of her own present day actions. The presence of Joan Chen, alumni of Twin Peaks, seems out of place as she’s a boss who appears to be taking care of Song Qi but disappears later. Relevant questions like, why does Song Qi actually love Liu Dong, whatever happened to the real Xiao Xi, and what mental disease is Song Qi actually suffering from, are never dealt with. Neither are the ramifications of her ‘pretend’ actions as it turns out she didn’t commit any of the murders. Liu Dong still loves her and a happy ending awaits our protagonists. There’s not even a sense of ambivalence in the ending a la Inception.
It’s a shame because there was a real interesting movie hidden somewhere underneath it all. Throughout the movie, there are sparks of directorial genius. The music is great, the acting is superb, and there’s some disturbing themes, especially in relation to artificial love. Unfortunately, the story I was interested in was swept under the courtyard similar to the murdered rival. Later on, the corpse was nowhere to be found as it was all part of Song Qi’s hallucination.
There’s no doubt Li Yu is a provocative and interesting director, as showcased by earlier works like Fish and Elephant and Lost in Beijing. But Double Exposure was a puzzle that worked better as a single exposure and the second take would have been better left at the cutting board.