Review: Jill Li’s ‘Lost Course’

Lost Course Documentary

Is documentary filmmaking journalism? It’s a tricky question, one that delves far enough into the form and function of the genre production that it begins to split hairs. The easiest compromise of an answer is that documentaries have the potential to be journalism, despite the typical artistic flourishes associated with many other genre movies. The easiest and best way to remove all “entertainment” aspects that would seem to dilute a documentary’s journalistic ability is to present material as unexpurgated and raw as possible. This is precisely what director Jill Li has done with Lost Course, a film whose power lies not in editorializing but keen observation. 

Li’s choice to step back and capture as much material as possible is the perfect approach to her subject matter. Starting in 2011, Lost Course chronicles several years of political turmoil within a small fishing village named Wukan in Guangdong Province, China. The initial spark of unrest in the village was lit in 2009 by authorities illegally selling off communal land, causing local residents to start their own grassroots protest movement which included the emergence of a secretive leader nicknamed “Patriot No. 1.” Li captures the village’s attempts to get their land back, following several prominent figures in the cause: the wise and measured Lin, the motorbike riding Bo, the young and hip photographer Xing and the goofily impassioned Hong. Over the course of the film’s three hour running time, these people, their friends and their families form alliances, become heavily involved in local government, attempt to change things from within official positions and fall from grace in a way that seems as dramatically doomed as if a screenwriter had planned it. 

More by Bill Bria: Sundance 2021 Review: Pascual Sisto’s ‘John and the Hole’

Lost Course Documentary

The most editorializing Li does in Lost Course is splitting the film into two parts entitled “Protests” and “After Protests.” Other than that, she steps back (literally — she’s only seen and heard on camera for the briefest of moments) and lets her subjects and their reality be the focus. Lost Course is deliberately a stark movie — there’s not even a music score of any sort — yet it’s often riveting thanks to it feeling so truthful. Li and her editors Luke To and Lau Sze Wai have the unenviable task of cutting down literal years worth of footage into a succinct package, and it’s thanks to their scrutiny and knowledge of the issues and the participants that Lost Course is as focused as it is. There are very little tangents as a result, and no narrative dead ends. The byproduct of this is that the film never feels as intimate as it could — though the movie spends a good amount of time with the principals and delves into their family lives, there’s still an element of distance present, which makes for an intriguing contrast with Li’s handheld, gritty camerawork. 

It turns out that distance is part of Lost Course’s undercurrent of ambiguity. By the end, many of the people who began the movie as passionate, idealist activists have either been charged and/or imprisoned for a number of crimes, and it’s unclear whether these charges are government tools of oppression or acts of personal corruption. Li isn’t out to judge, presenting the facts as frankly and dispassionately as she can. In this way, Lost Course becomes something of a mystery story, suffused with all the ominous implications of a 70s conspiracy thriller. There’s an unsettling inevitability to the fates of several characters, and a sense of menace coming from the largely unseen Chinese government. Even one of the film’s major revelations, the identity of “Patriot No. 1,” feels hauntingly ambiguous, since the revelation comes after so many lies have been delivered to Li’s camera that it’s unclear who to trust. 

More by Bill Bria: Sundance Review: Karen Cinorre’s ‘Mayday’

Lost Course Documentary

The most powerful aspect of Lost Course is how it portrays the struggle of the Wukan citizens as a general metaphor for political corruption and the futility of activism. Using Wukan as a microcosm for issues facing just about every major country in the present day (especially America), the prospect of making real changes in any governmental system seems impossible. The film sees its principal activists go through a disheartening cycle, turning from idealistic crusaders into (alleged) corrupt officials taking bribes. Even those who seem uncorrupted refuse to serve the abused citizenry because the system has become so dependent on their exploitation that it can’t be revamped easily. Li doesn’t need to add any evocative music, sardonic narration or talking head commentary to the movie in order for its bitter irony to hit hard. Lost Course’s most disheartening scene sees American immigrant Hong protesting in front of Trump Tower in 2016 just after Donald Trump’s election to the presidency, attempting to raise awareness and asking the rich mogul for help with Wukan’s plight. As the villagers continue to see their land and their futures gobbled up and cordoned off by rich developers thanks to an oppressive government, any happy ending they may have can be found in the existence of Lost Course itself, which at least shines a light on their predicament, accomplishing what Hong could not. In doing so, it’s revealed that the villagers problems are much the same ones all of us are dealing with, the world stuck in a self-perpetuating cycle of corruption and oppression that’s harder to stop as more and more time passes. Lost Course may appear to be distancing and remote on first glance, but through its journalistic approach, it becomes uncomfortably intimate.

Bill Bria (@billbria) is a writer, actor, songwriter and comedian. ‘Sam & Bill Are Huge,’ his 2017 comedy music album with partner Sam Haft, reached #1 on an Amazon Best Sellers list, and the duo maintains an active YouTube channel and plays regularly all across the country. Bill‘s acting credits include an episode of HBO’s ‘Boardwalk Empire’ and a featured parts in Netflix’s ‘Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’ and CBS’ ‘Instinct.’ His film writing can also be seen at Crooked Marquee as well as his own website. Bill lives in New York City.