Updated: Feb 8
Directed and written by: #QueenaLi
At times, a trip; at other times, a road movie. Queena Li’s Bipolar is slick and crisp, but perhaps a little vacuous. Screening at International Film Festival Rotterdam, it stands out for its dynamic, velvet-smooth visuals (curtesy of Ke Yuming) but it depends on its visuals like a crutch to carry itself through the full expanse of its misdirection. It offers so much, but it’s hard to discern what’s actually delivered.
Taking the myth of Orpheus as a template, a young woman (Leah Dou) arrives in Lhasa (Tibet), a self-made pilgrim, who journeys to Hell and back again. Her journey is motivated, on the surface, by a lobster. A lobster she finds in a restaurant aquarium. The waiters insist that it’s holy, truly belonging to the light of the Ming Island lighthouse. The girl takes it upon herself to steal the lobster and return it to the light. An inventive concept, especially as the lobster is defined by its rainbow shell (something withheld from the viewer by the film’s monochrome). But occasionally, colour slices through the film, revealing the rich vibrancy of the lobster’s shell. Reminiscent of Francis Ford Coppola’s Rumble Fish (1983), the liberation of the lobster equates to a liberation of colour - of spontaneity and life.
A series of traumatic flashbacks are scattered along the journey, in which our protagonist is bobbing in an indoor swimming pool. Through these lucid flashbacks, it’s revealed that our protagonist was once in love with a boy (Kailang He); a boy who complains that he feels stuck with her in the swimming pool, like an animal in a tank. His subsequent suicide is pretty much expected, as is the running metaphor of the swimming pool/ lobster tank. Clearly, her desire to free the lobster is a desire to free herself from the memories of her past.
Queena Li beautifully undermines this objective by having her protganost search for a freedom that’s constantly evading itself. The film asks, what does freedom really look like? Do we really know what we want or are we just pretending? This sense of uncertainty is baked into every character, all of whom are curiously nameless. Our protagonist is simply credited as ‘Girl’ and other characters are credited by their occupations; this is a world where people are in a constant search for identity, where their identities are collapsed into whatever defines them on a surface level.
But the script seems unable to accommodate this evasiveness; instead, it falls apart at times, the road movie seemingly going nowhere (and if that’s the point, it’s crucial that an artist at least make plotlessness engaging, insightful, something perhaps promised but never realised). The editing doesn’t help, occasionally scattered, messily compiled, even for a film preoccupied with memories. And the traumatic flashbacks of suicide are a little mishandled, razor blades caressed in hands oh so gratuitously. Nonetheless Bipolar is worth watching; it’s an odd-ball, intriguing film; hopefully one which offers more on a second viewing.