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Review: ‘Lost Course’ puts us on the inside of a small Chinese village’s big protest

Protesters in Wukan, China, in the documentary "Lost Course."
(Icarus Films)

A village in southern China becomes a hotbed of democratic reform — with complicated aftereffects — in Jill Li’s epic political documentary “Lost Course,” a remarkable feat of embedded journalism for a first-time feature filmmaker. Filmed over several years in which hope-buoyed protesters wrestle with the consequences of hard-won change, this two-part, three-hour film is marked by immediacy and breadth, as if an on-the-fly news bulletin had naturally morphed into the richest of character-driven sagas.

For years, strapped villagers in the small fishing port of Wukan in China’s Guangdong province had watched their communal lands be sold off to developers by corrupt officials, until things erupted in September 2011 with a grass-roots town takeover and general strike that grabbed the world’s attention. Li, based in Hong Kong at the time, went there with a camera to capture the sweep of the land-grab protests — road closures, marches, bullhorn speeches, entire families in the streets, and the arrival of a global news presence. In short order, as “Lost Course” begins, we meet key protest leaders from among an emboldened, fed-up populace that demands new leadership and justice. Chants such as “Down with corrupt officials” and “Long live the Communist Party” go hand in hand, because to these villagers, their loyalty has earned them the right of redress.

When the inevitable security crackdowns result in the mysterious death of a beloved Wukan representative while in custody, the citizenry’s resolve against corruption only deepens. Revered elder Lin — a gangly figure with a serious countenance — becomes the point person when government higher-ups show a willingness to find a solution to the unrest.

The first part of Li’s film, called “Protests,” closes with the unprecedented result of those talks: a new, free election by secret ballot to replace the old village committee. The election campaign is a celebratory affair — speeches in the town square, protest leaders enjoying a karaoke night (cue up “The Internationale”) and the sense that a corner is being turned. For Lin, though, it’s just as meaningful that he can point to a report that reads in part, “The villagers’ demands are legitimate and lawful.” For this child of the Cultural Revolution, who unsurprisingly wins his campaign to become village director, the authoritative validity of that sentence is everything. It even becomes a banner in town.

Part 2, however, called “After Protests,” which picks up months after the March 2012 election day, is a different dose of civic reality and political truth, one that puts the new leaders in the crosshairs of a village primed for progress. It also pits protest leaders against each other when familiar charges of bribery and corruption rear their heads and increased scrutiny from a patiently repressive regime further threatens Wukan’s security and cohesion. One young activist, Xing, a camera buff who opens his own photo studio, wants to fight his disillusionment by running for village committee himself, but Hong — one of the original protest leaders — chooses political exile in New York instead. And as Lin tries to keep his reputation intact amid mounting challenges, he also seems to be trying to keep the spark in his eyes from dimming.

Though its length is daunting and not always well-managed (toward the end, there’s a lot of text to keep us up to speed), “Lost Course” is nevertheless an extraordinary achievement in condensing years of footage into so absorbing and affecting a journey. (Luke To and Lau Sze Wai are credited editors along with Li.)

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As these passionate, embattled local champions of underdog democracy contend with the thorny legacy of their fight, Li’s sympathetic dedication to them — reciprocated by their trust in her — becomes the most rewarding of personal, verité-driven lenses. From the early rush of momentous defiance to the fragmentation that pervades the rest of “Lost Course,” we appear only ever to be on the inside of these lives looking out and around, which is an uncommonly powerful vantage point for any documentary but especially when it offers so intimate a view into the drive and disenchantments of small-town Chinese citizens.

‘Lost Course’

In Mandarin and English with Mandarin and English subtitles

Not rated

Running time: 2 hours, 59 minutes

Playing: Starts March 5, Laemmle Virtual Cinema


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