REVIEW: "Suzhou River," It's Deja Vu All Over Again
by Mark Peranson
[EDITOR’S NOTE: Mark Peranson reviewed “Suzhou River” for indieWIRE earlier this year. The film opens Wednesday, November 8th at New York’s Film Forum.]
Named after the murky, polluted river that floats through Shanghai, “Suzhou River” confidently charts how its filth overflows into a noirish gangland story of a kidnapping, a girl, a motorcycle driver, and another pair — the narrator and his girlfriend, who are their doubles. Heads, tails, and stripes above all other films that competed at this year’s International Film festival Rotterdam Rotterdam — and one of the eventual winners of the festival’s top award — was Lou Ye‘s very assured and engrossing tale. You’re unlikely to find a more polished second film on any continent.
After being introduced to the city through its river, we meet its narrator, an unseen videographer for hire. Lou tantalizes us in the first few reels, successfully constructing a wholly subjective short film inside the greater picture: Seen through the video camera of its lovelorn narrator, we experience his love sickness over the loss of his beloved Meimei. Learning from the failures of Robert Montgomery‘s 1947 film noir “Lady in the Lake,” which tried to stretch the conceit over the course of an entire feature, Lou soon pulls back from the first-person visual style.
Quite inventively, the story then shifts to a stern-faced motorcycle-driving courier named Mardar (Jia Hongsheng), and his burgeoning infatuation with Moudan (Zhou Xun), the meek daughter of a black marketeer, who he chauffeurs weekly. The two fall in love, but, soon after, Mardar’s boss forces him to play along in the kidnapping of Moudan — who is herself heartbroken, and, upon escaping, throws herself into the river. Mardar serves his jail time for participating in the funny business, then returns to Shanghai, vowing to find Moudan.
Things start to get confusing, so pay attention. Mardar comes across Meimei (remember the narrator’s object of desire), wearing flowing golden locks and performing as a mermaid in a sleazy club; her resemblance to his presumed dead girlfriend is striking. (Zhuo plays both characters, so Mardar’s obsession is at least based in some kind of textual reality.) The puzzle slowly comes apart, then comes together. Step back a second and this is what you see: a voyeuristic, obsessive detective story featuring two girls that look the same — differing only by how they wear their hair — some drownings, a blonde wig, and a swooning, romantic score by Jorg Lemberg, cribbed from The Best of Bernard Herrmann.
And Lou claims not to have been influenced by “Vertigo?” If the resemblance is, in fact, unintentional, it gives credence to my theory that Hitchcock‘s fantastic feature possesses an unconscious yeoman’s grip on filmmakers worldwide, from Atom Egoyan to Lou. Add to that a voiceover clearly influenced by Wong Kar-wai, and the result is something far from groundbreaking, but highaly gripping, and perhaps what can be expected from a German-Chinese co-production.
“Suzhou River” likely had major support in its European festival premieres at Rotterdam and Berlin among international journalists and programmers — including representatives from New Directors — because it’s super-slick, and most resembles American film, in particular, Hitchcock and the film noir genre. (It has since been picked up by Strand Releasing, and will undoubtedly be making many well-deserved festival appearances the rest of this year before it opens in November.) Lou’s success, though, is a mixed message: one sees a smooth operator at work with “Suzhou River.” It once again illustrates that those films more
stylistically familiar to Western audiences — rather than those that truly break new ground — will be the ones to gain support on this continent.
[Mark Peranson is editor and publisher of the Toronto-based film magazine Cinema Scope (insound.com/zinestand/cscope).]