Written by Patrick Hao
It’s hard to describe exactly what Queena Li’s debut feature Bipolar is without sounding like an intern at a movie studio writing script coverage. There are bits of Luis Bunuel’ and Maya Deren’s surrealism, bits of Jim Jarmusch’ and David Lynch’s absurdist take on the everyday man, and Ingmar Bergman’s existentialism. But all those combined never feels contrived or derivative of these great filmmakers. Rather, it is the announcement of a filmmaker coming to her own and making a splash.
Li’s film is an absurdist journey of self-actualization steeped in Buddhist philosophy that this reviewer is not familiar enough with to truly comprehend. But that prevents Li from putting her audience in her firm grasp because ultimately the film’s themes of self are universal enough to emotionally attach to. Film notes have described this as a take on the Orpheus myth. Both are about singer-songwriters who attempt to guide home someone who has descended into hell. In Bipolar’s cases, the singer-songwriter, the Girl, is played by actual Chinese-pop star, Leah Dou, and instead of Eurydice, she is guiding home a mystical colorful lobster who has been placed on display in a restaurant.
The film plays like a road trip movie, bouncing between flashbacks of the Girl’s life and the strange characters that she meets. The film takes tangents into the Girl’s fractured past, exposing the terrain of her mindscape. The people that she meets from Buddhist monk to a wig maker are manifestations of her fractured interiority. All this is told in odd non-sequitur philosophical musings which can sometimes feel too self-conscious for its own good but the style from Queena Li is steady enough to keep hold.
Her vision of the Chinese and Tibetan landscape is shot in beautiful widescreen digital monochrome along with the film’s deliberate pace which allows the viewer to get lost in it and slip into a dreamy state. And when there are the moments of neon colors, it is quite extraordinary. Flourishes like a quick montage from the lobster’s point of view is exhilarating in its style and daring.
The English title Bipolar might be the worst thing about the film. While it certainly makes sense to describe the fractured mindscape of the Girl, the baggage of the word distracts from what the film is really about. The Chinese title 只是一次偶然的旅行 (“Zhishi yici ouran de luxing”) means “Just an Accidental Trip” seems like the more apropos title, even with the awkward direct English translation. The textual purpose of this road trip is just a journey to actual self-actualization. As a performer, Leah Dou is a tantalizing and compassionate screen presence, like a young Maggie Cheung, making any hard to grasp freewheeling meandering moments tolerable.
Li is assured in ambition, vision, and most importantly voice. With Bipolar, Queena Li adds her name, along with Cao Jingling and Bi Gan, to the promising new generation of independent Chinese filmmakers.
Bipolar was screened as part of the 2021 edition of the Vancouver International Film Festival.