Suzhou River

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

SUZHOU RIVER

7/10

(Su Zhou He) China/Germany 2000
dir/scr Ye Lou
cin Yu Wang
stars Xun Zhou, Hongsheng Jia
83 minutes

‘We are come to a world within the world. In these alien reaches, these maugre sinks and interstitial wastes that the righteous see from carriage and car another life dreams.
He could hear the river talking softly beneath him, heavy old river with wrinkled face. Beneath the sliding water cannons and carriages, keelboats rotted to the consistency of mucilage.
Beyond. the shape of the city rising wore a wrought, jaded look, hammered out dark and smoking against a china sky.’
(Cormac McCarthy, Suttree)

Like McCarthy, Ye Lou is a poet of the foul river and the bad city. Instead of Knoxville and the Tennessee, we have Shanghai and the Suzhou, but the water is the same: polluted by industry, flowing filthy past scenes of human drama, human tragedy, hurrying quietly by. And like McCarthy, Lou isn’t afraid to baffle his audience – while the novelist revels in archaic and arcane vocabulary, the film director spins a wrongfooting Moebius strip out of a very basic, familiar kind of plot.

Suzhou River‘s central story concerns motorcycle courier Mardar (Jia), who falls in love with teenager Moudan (Zhou), only to be forced into kidnapping her as part of an underworld plot against her wealthy father. Outraged at Mardar’s betrayal, Moudan jumps into the Suzhou, presumably to drown, though no body is found. Tormented by grief, Mardar leaves Shanghai for a few years only to return, unable to forget Moudan, determined to track her down. He thinks he’s succeeded in his quest when he stumbles across showgirl Meimei (Zhou again), whose act involves playing a mermaid in a nightclub tank – but things don’t turn out how either he or we expect.

This unpredictability is due to the fact that the central story of Suzhou River is being told – perhaps even made up – by the film’s unseen narrator, a video-cameraman-for-hire who happens to be in love with a showgirl called Meimei, whose act involves playing a mermaid in a nightclub tank. How much of what goes on is ‘real,’ rather than being an idea for a story, or even an idea about the very idea of stories – is debatable, and perhaps even Lou himself doesn’t know. The influence of Hitchcock – on both narrator and director – is unmistakeable, specifically Vertigo (the doubling of the elusive female) and Rear Window (the limits of artistic/voyeuristic subjectivity).

Though there’s a nebulousness about pretty much everything and everybody in the film – while the images themselves remain sharp – it isn’t a disagreeable kind of haze. This is thanks in no small part to the efforts of the skilful, photogenic pairing of Jia and Zhou. During several of Moudan’s long reaction shots, Zhou’s face goes through a startlingly subtle range of expressions as her love turns to anger and bitterness – her brassy Meimei could hardly be more of a contrast. It’s a terrific showcase for an actress, and alongside her Jia is relatively one-note and undemonstrative. But he’s an engaging performer with, to Western audiences, a somewhat un-Chinese appearance – he’s probably the ‘coolest’ young actor in an internationally-released ‘eastern’ picture since Takeshi Kaneshiro in Wong Kar-Wai’s Fallen Angels.

Lou isn’t a stylist like Wong – there’s no way the Hong Kong master would indulge himself by combining jittery hand-held camerawork with extreme close-ups, as this relative newcomer does here with occasionally nauseating effect in the early shots from the narrator’s perspective. Things thankfully settle down as the film finds its own rhythms, enabling us to get a proper look at this alien mega-city. Suzhou River was smuggled past the official censor, and it won’t boost tourism to Shanghai, apart from visitors intrigued by sci-fi horizons where jagged skyscrapers mingle with bizarrely bulbous industrial plants. According to this film, it’s a huge, rough, mean, crime-ridden dump with little or no sign of police – ideal for the film’s elements of character study, romantic drama, teasing puzzle, noirish thriller. In cinematic terms (if none other), a perfect environment.

February 28th, 2001

by Neil Young
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