Following the global success of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”, viewers in the West have witnessed a revived interest in the works of fifth generation Chinese directors such as Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige. These films have generally been historical, showing events through a revisionist stance (such as Kaige’s “The Emperor and the Assassin”) or grandiose, martial arts tinged melodrama (Yimou’s “Hero” is probably the best example). Rallying against these epics have been the sixth generation of Chinese directors, most famously Wong Kar-Wai, who have taken a more global approach to cinema, looking outwards as well as inwards, and utilising a variety of influences and techniques in their urbanised, often existential works.
Ye Lou’s third film, “Suzhou River”, is a classic example of the sixth generation film, and one which takes its stylistic and thematic cues from Hitchcock and Kar-Wai in equal measure. Set in a decaying, post-industrial Shanghai that is worlds away from the historical splendour and bright lights of other, more glamorous films, this is a moving rumination on love, loss, obsession and identity that stands out as a mesmerising classic of cutting edge Chinese cinema. Highly stylised, shot in an almost documentary-like fashion, and with a fascinating, fractured narrative, “Suzhou River” is a challenging, visually stunning, and above all an emotional experience that should not be missed.
The film opens with an unseen narrator telling us of his girlfriend, the mysterious Meimei (Zhou Xun, also in “The Emperor and the Assassin”), who works at a sleazy bar, swimming around in a large tank, dressed as a mermaid. As he tells us more about Meimei and their relationship, the story switches to that of Mardar (Jidu Hanleng, from the controversial “Frozen”), a petty criminal who falls in love with Moudan (also Zhou Xun), the young, innocent daughter of a shady businessman. The two hesitatingly form a relationship, which is shattered when Mardar is involved with an attempt to kidnap Moudan and extort money from her father. Distraught, Moudan flees and throws herself into the titular river, vowing to return as a mermaid.
The narrative again rejoins our narrator, as Mardar enters his life a few years later, now a sad, haunted man who spends his days in a forlorn search for his lost love. Mardar encounters Meimei during her mermaid act, and becomes convinced that she is Moudan. Meimei encourages this belief, caught up with his obsession and the notion of his undying love, a decision which will change the lives of all involved.
Director Lou sets out his stall right from the beginning, opening the film with a series of fragmented shots of the polluted river winding its way through the rundown urban areas and factories of Shanghai. This sequence, which jumps around the landscape, lingering here and there, gives the viewer a good idea of what to expect from the narrative. Although the plot is quite non-linear, it does follow a basic thread, and as such is both deceptively simple and fascinatingly complex.
Drawing obvious comparisons to Hitchcock’s classic “Vertigo”, Lou’s use of the off-screen narrator, from whose first person perspective much of the film is seen, gives an added dimension, directly involving the viewer and creating a sense of realism and indeed voyeurism. The use of shaky, handheld camera work is very reminiscent of Kar-Wai’s much lauded “Chungking Express”, and as in that film it gives the proceedings the look and feel of a documentary. The camera is constantly on the move, its gaze never resting for more than a few seconds, and this does give a sense of breathless urgency that keeps things moving swiftly throughout the scant eighty minute running time. This too adds to the gritty realism of the film, despite the deliberately choppy editing techniques employed.
There is a great deal of beauty in this realism, and Lou finds lush imagery amongst the rust and urban decay, creating an almost dreamlike atmosphere. The use of the mermaid as a recurring device, both visually and thematically, adds a surreal element to the plot, standing out in stark contrast to the grime of the locale. Lou also references a number of the classic cinematic devices used by Hitchcock in “Vertigo”, especially the bridge which pays host to many of the pivotal and tragic events of the film. Although he does not set out to subvert the use of these devices, Lou imbues them with a rich sense of place which adds to the very Eastern feel of “Suzhou River”.
Although the film does deal with obsession, and does so often quite bitterly, Lou mixes realism and romanticism in a skillful, lyrical manner. The way the film switches from character to character, and between the two core relationships, gives an ambiguous, slightly surreal feel to the story which manages to compliment the element of realism perfectly. The plot is engrossing and fascinating, and the mystery element is well handled, dwelling mainly upon the truth behind the Meimei/Moudan identity question. Though the film is obviously concerned with its mise-en-scene, Lou never loses sight of the narrative, and thankfully the film does not emerge as a hollow triumph of style over substance. Although the film does seem to drift along at times, and it is fair to say that the characters are quite sketchily written, there is a great emotional depth, especially during the dissolute, downbeat ending.
The acting is superb, especially Xun in the twin roles of Meimei and Moudan. She catches both women perfectly, bringing out the similarities and apparent differences between the two with all the ambiguity the film demands. Her performance is very much central to the film’s success, as her siren call lures in viewers every bit as much as it does the male protagonists. The narrator’s voiceover is well handled, and is used sparingly, with a poetic, almost improvised quality that is effectively voiced and adds to the sense of the film being akin to a bleak modern fairy tale.
Overall, “Suzhou River” is an excellent film that is recommended for all fans of cinema. At once showing the director to be literate in global cinema, and having a uniquely local voice, the film is visually arresting and haunting, a seductive, whispered tale of love lost and the duplicity of hope.
Ye Lou (director) / Ye Lou (screenplay)
CAST: Xun Zhou …. Meimei/Moudan
Hongshen Jia …. Mardar
Zhongkai Hua …. Lao B.
Anlian Yao …. Boss
An Nai …. Mada