Reviewed by Shelly Kraicer at the Hong Kong International Film Festival, April, 2000.
The outstanding Chinese language film of the 2000 Hong Kong International Film Festival was Suzhou River, the only entry from mainland China, as it happens. The second film of director and writer Lou Ye, Suzhou River premiered at the 1999 Rotterdam Festival and won the prestigious Tiger award. The film resembles a contemporary film noir set in the seediest neighbourhoods of present day Shanghai, along the dirty, post-industrial Suzhou River that seems to wind through nothing but decaying warehouses and dusty factories on its way to Shanghai's waterfront. Although Western critics have found it easy to tag Suzhou River as excessively derivative, under the sway of such diverse influences as Hitchcock and Wong Kar-wai, I found its self-conscious narrative playfulness to quite innovative. Such a strategy could breath new life into the "Sixth Generation" of Chinese cinema whose urban grunge-laden reaction against the masters of the "Fifth Generation" (Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige) seems to have largely played itself out, in the face of official disapproval and bureaucratic resistance. If Suzhou River has a key influence, then it might be Wang Shuo, the Beijing based bad-boy novelist. Wang is a self-proclaimed "hooligan" writer whose irreverent, sarcastic novels and stories put the conventions of narrative itself into question. And like Suzhou River, they often deal with shady, marginal film-noirish characters, and they play destabilizingly within genres.
Suzhou River has two narrators. Or three. Or more. It's hard to tell. The framing story involves a videographer, unnamed, in love with mermaid-costumed bar-dancer Meimei (Zhou Xun). He starts as the narrator, and his point of view is ours (via a subjective camera) for much of the film. Meimei (narrator 2) tells him the story that Mardar (narrator 3), a man who has become obsessed with her, told her. In Mardar's story, he is a motorcycle courier who has fallen in love with Moudan (also played by Zhou Xun), the young daughter of his boss. Complex gang machinations force Mardar to kidnap Moudan for ransom, after they have fallen in love. Moudan, distraught, escapes and throws herself into the Suzhou River. Mardar, released from prison, searches for Moudan, finds Meimei instead, and becomes convinced that they are the same person. At which point the videographer/narrator abdicates his story telling role, handing it over to Mardar. But the identity of the narrator, once destabilized, never settles down, and begins to alternate, mixing both men's points of view. Mardar finally thinks he finds Moudan in a 24 hour shop. Meimei leaves the vidographer with the following question, after both of believe that they see Mardar and Moudan's bodies, retrieved from the river: "If I leave you someday, would you look for me, like Mardar looking for Moudan?"
With its fractured, dissolving, indeterminate and unreliable narrators and a narrative marked by self-reflexive mise-en-abîme, Suzhou River deflates even the possibility of a stable subject, of a singular, reliable point-of-view, right from its opening river-boat montage. As highly fractured as the narrative is, though, the film's style, despite its being rife with jump cuts, alternations between film and video, and steady-cam restlessness, imposes kind of unity on the text that is quite sneakily deceptive. The colours are lush, rather than film-noir obscure, saturated with evening yellows and reds, shabby industrial browns and a heightened, eerie night-club light effect. The music, too, is lushly orchestrated. And performances are top-notch, especially Zhou Xun's in the double female role. She takes a potentially stereotypical female role, running the (non-) gamut from naive schoolgirl to dangerous seductress, and infuses it with a mature, substantial presence that manages to insist that there is something "there", above and beyond the object of a (multiply-conceived) voyeur's gaze. Happily, Suzhou River has been picked up for North American release (cheers to Strand Releasing), so its provocations and mysteries need not remain the preserve of a fortunate festival-going audience.
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