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Suzhou River
cast: Zhou Xun, Jia Hongsheng, Yao Anlian, Nai An, and Hua Zhongkai

writer and director: Lou Ye

80 minutes (15) 2000
widescreen ratio 16:9
Artificial Eye DVD Region 2 retail
[released 8 March]

RATING: 8/10
reviewed by Paul Higson
Let's kick-off by investigating the supporting material because it dispenses discussion of something ugly, a contrasting to the pleasanter note we can then depart on. The disc extras' menu has it posted as the On The Waterfront video diary while the sleeve correctly catalogues it as In Shanghai, a video-work by Lou Ye, the director of Suzhou River (aka: Suzhou He). This significant documentary short, sponsored by the Rotterdam Film Fund and shot on a PD150, is very different in tone from the main feature and yet shares passivity with it. It is an honest visual documentation that begins by singling intimate moments from an ordinary past and determining their currency in the now. But quickly the fascination turns to others and their synchronicity with a chaotic and contradictory Shanghai. We are taken from the Hollywood-like fakery of Old Shanghai Street to the desperate sifting through stinking refuse that some of the poverty-stricken are reduced to.
   The cloying beauty of the love story told in Suzhou River is dangerously cancelled by the filmmaker's willingness to capture the image of an old man excreting over the side of a barge boat into the very river the other film is behoved to. There is a filthy and nasty cut from al fresco toilet to a white wedding set against a green lawn, coupling their beautiful day with that dehumanising image into forever. Before you ask whether that unpleasant edit was subject to any signature disclaimer or indemnity by the old man or the newlyweds, I can report that Lou Ye appears out to prove the authenticity of everything committed to film, in fact pushes for a response. He stands on a street corner filming the faces of those passing by, most shooting no more than an incurious glance at him. When one bemusedly enquires into the filmmaker's purpose, Ye is himself caught on a second camera, confrontational in his silence and ignorant stance. They are going to film until the inevitable umbrage is taken, and it comes in a pair of shifty but sober young men who assault Ye and try to damage his camera. Ye is far from alone and they collectively give pursuit, you sense they derive amusement from it. A visit to the clubs places this short as the missing link with the more indigenous Shanghai Panic. The film closes on the tender image of a shy child. "This little girl facing my camera... I can't forget her expression, her gaze. I don't know what will happen to her in the future, just like Shanghai. I don't have any reason. Just like I don't have a reason for liking Shanghai." It is hard to believe that this film only runs 15 minutes.
   The only other notable extra is a generous stills gallery that worthily captures images that are so easily lost in the shiver of the main feature. The billing of the film in the mystery genre with a nod to Hitchcock can lead to wrong assumptions that this is a de facto thriller and to synopsise the plot only entrenches that suggestion all the more. So listen up! Suzhou River is a love story, an intelligently delivered tale of adoration, pressures, proof and redemption. With what is almost tantamount to an admission that there are few new tricks in the film canon, Ye appropriates several established ploys and toys with them. The narrator (Hua Zhongkai) is a videographer, and to that end we never meet him face to face, his part of the story told through the digital eye. However, that does not make this The Lady In The Lake, for whenever the story moves away into scenes that do not directly involve him then it changes over to invisible hands. Though we are taught to accept the narrator's account of things, we are also adequately warned not to believe anything other than the POV, that it is subject only to the narrator's fancy, a more pleasing romantic explanation for the periodic unsettling disappearances of his beloved Meimei (Zhou Xun), a pulverising love of whom he underscores with the confession that, "Every time she closed the door behind her I felt as if my life had stopped." So wonderful is the story of the videographer's invention and the reassurance that it brings him that you want it true also. The surface conventionality of Suzhou River belies an underlying Borges-like ingenuity that we are easily led away from and readily tricked into at the same time.
   The story that the narrator strikes up is that of Mardar (Jia Hongsheng), a motorcycle messenger, inspired by someone espied in the street as the narrator is obsessively looking out of the window in killer anticipation of his lover's return. Mardar falls for the young pony-tailed Moudan (Zhou Xun, again), who he is occasionally required to transport away from her father's apartment while father entertains young women. A rival gangster enlists him in her kidnapping and when she learns at what actual monetary cost his treachery ran she hurls herself into the river and vanishes. He never stops looking for her and finds her double in Meimei who is performing as a mermaid in a local bar. Slowly, she allows him into her life, by first allowing him to pour over details of Moudan, eventually becoming a full relationship. The narrator has with this stage found a stupendous excuse for any affair, an obsessive quest that he is unable to equal, that could not occur in real life and that is greater than his experience. Now all he has to do is end the story to his satisfaction but there are still too many characters for that and what better high romantic way to do that than with a tragedy and a couple of final twists.
   It sounds as though I was overly aware of a game normally only overt following several viewings, but let me assure you that this is not the case. It is an easily moving and closely kept tale within a tale that admiringly investigates the emotional, physiological, environmental and mythological details and it would take an unknown number of viewings to determine how those elements tag team for attention within the finished film. Some will accuse me of a over-read interpretation, but an early emphasis on storytelling and the director's apparent intellect refute the only plain alternative.
   Seeing her first in Wang Xiaoshuai's Beijing Bicycle, in what was basically a guest appearance, I could understand the interest in Zhou Xun, but with Suzhou River I can now understand a fascination. It is that she is a great actress who can be seen finding the respective real feelings, sometimes literally, the camera lingering on her when she realises that the kidnap is not a joke, the tear in her eye, and later disgust, anger and miniature madness. She is formidable, believable throughout, in both roles, or is it one, or three?
   The running time is 80 minutes, three minutes short of that displayed on the case though that is not the worst of spec detail blunders I have encountered this month. I hope to never unravel the structural riddle of this film, command a retreat should I ever get too near, just touching the levels of separation and deception. When a film is remarked upon as being one step ahead of the viewer it is normally a thriller, but this film is one step ahead of you while operating as a love story, and I can't think of ever encountering or thinking that before. Guess it makes it kind of special.
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