LOST IN RUSSIA (2020) review


Lost in Russia, the latest installment in writer-producer-director-actor Xu Zheng’s franchise of box-office juggernauts (Lost in Thailand was for a while the highest-grossing Chinese title ever with 208 million dollars, with Lost in Hong Kong topping that impressive tally three years later with 254 million dollars) has known a drastically different fate upon its release. It was among the half-dozen high-profile Chinese New Year film releases cancelled due to the outbreak of the Coronavirus in China. Except while films like Dante Lam’s The Rescue, Chen Sicheng’s Detective Chinatown 3 or Stanley Tong’s Vanguard, among others, are for now biding their time, Lost in Russia was released online for free in the middle of the downcast festivities, as a result of a deal between the film’s studio Huanxi Media, and streaming giant ByteDance.

As usual, Xu Zheng plays an all-new character, but with common traits to his previous leads in the franchise: Xu Yi Wan is an entrepreneur who patented a successful new heating system with his wife Zhang Lu (Yuan Quan), with whom he’s now divorced. Now they’re fighting over ownership of it, and just as she leaves for the US with her new boyfriend (Godfrey Gao, in his last film appearance before his untimely death a few months before) to negotiate a sale with a big American company, he plans to follow her, hoping to interfere with the deal, out of spite. But as he reaches the airport, he realizes that his passport is with his mother Xiaohua (Huang Meiying), who’s not aware of the divorce, and is embarking on a week-long train trip to Moscow, to perform with her choir at a concert. In the end, he has no choice but to hop on the departing train, planning to get off at the next station. But things don’t go according to plan, and it’s the start of an adventure through Russia with the mother he’s been neglecting for years.

With Lost in Russia, Xu Zheng commendably keeps mixing up the formula of his franchise: a trans-siberian train and snowy Russia replace tropical (Lost in Thailand) and urban (Lost in Hong Kong) landscapes, while he is flanked not with a big-hearted nincompoop (Wang Baoqiang and Bao Bei’er in the previous installments), but with his own – big-hearted, of course – mother. His character remains largely the same, however: a fundamentally good person, but one who has morphed into a self-centered, petty and resentful version of himself. But as a result of the softer partner he gets saddled with, he tone this time is less madcap than in Thailand (though there’s still a bear chase, a hot air ballon landing in Moscow and a train-top scramble), and less cruel than in the queasy Hong Kong.

There’s a general air of platitude to the whole “overbearing mother who actually is simply worried about her son’s well-being and has stuck to a loveless marriage for his sake but didn’t tell him until now, and now he understands at last the sacrifices she’s made for him”, though it does function well enough, thanks to Huang Meiying’s warm and funny performance, and the foolproof emotional pull of motherly love. Some moments, like the aforementioned hot air balloon travel to Moscow (to the majestic sounds of Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto), manage to impress, but overall there’s just too much sobbing, and too many Russian stereotypes: they’re passionate! they like to drink! Plus, bears!). Amusing appearances by Huang Bo and Shen Teng make one wish the two comedic powerhouses had more than mere cameos, while Yuan Quan get the thankless wife role, much like overqualified Zhao Wei in Hong Kong. Drawing most of the laughs is Jia Bing as a train steward watching the proceedings alternatively in puzzlement, anger and amusement.

Long Story Short: Fitfully amusing and occasionally moving, Lost in Russia is lodged firmly between the uproarious Lost in Thailand and the queasy Lost in Hong Kong. **1/2

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