REVIEW: The Other Side of Suzhou River; Wang's "So Close to Paradise"
by G. Allen Johnson
(indieWIRE/ 03.08.01) -- Like last year's arthouse sleeper, Lou Ye's "Suzhou River,'' Wang Xiaoshuai's "So Close to Paradise,'' which opens Friday at The Screening Room in New York, is set along seedy docks and includes both a love triangle and a search for a missing person, in which a beautiful and mysterious girl holds the key.
But "So Close to Paradise'' couldn't be more different in its depiction of a young man's awakening. While "Suzhou River'' was alive with bright colors, Hitchcockian inspiration and a hypnotic style, "So Close to Paradise'' is almost funereal in tone, with lots of grayish blues, and a moodiness that Wang skillfully imbues with his customary social conscience.
And at least Wang gets to sign his name to this one. His last film, 1997's "Frozen,'' was a vicious attack on the Communist government's systematic suppression of artistic freedom, in which a performance artist decides to stage his own suicide as his last and greatest work. Based on a true story, and an eerie precursor to the recent burning suicides of the outlawed Falun Gong religion, the movie initially did not credit a director, and the original negative had to be smuggled out of China for postproduction (the recent Fox Lorber home video release does credit Wang).
"So Close to Paradise'' has, thankfully, a happier history, if only slightly. It was an official selection in the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes in 1999, but is just making its way Stateside after censorship battles with the Chinese government. Perhaps authorities loosened up a little with Wang's growing international reputation, fostered recently by his latest film, "Beijing Bicycle"; a reworking of Vittorio De Sica's "The Bicycle Thief" that took the runner-up prize at the Berlin Film Festival last month and was acquired for U.S. release by Sony Pictures Classics. Whatever the case, Wang is moving to the forefront of China's gritty Sixth Generation directors, which include notables such as Ning Ying and Zhang Yuan.
In "Paradise," Dong Zi (Shi Yu) and Gao Ping (Guo Tao) are two of the hundreds of thousands of rural farm workers moving to large cities for higher-paying labor jobs as a result of China's economic reforms. Thing is, Gao Ping isn't working. While Dong Zi lugs crates of merchandise across the harbor, Gao Ping wears dress clothes and carries a cell phone. But Dong Zi doesn't know what his buddy, who also pays most of the rent on their shabby riverside apartment, does for his money.
What we do know is Gao Ping was robbed of a wad of money by Su Wu (Wu Tao), and he is obsessed with gaining revenge. He traces the vanished thug to an exotic dancer and singer, Ruan Hong (Wang Tong). Naturally, she won't tell him Su Wu's whereabouts, so Gao Ping and Dong Zi kidnap her. The twist: She falls in love with Gao Ping, but even though they become a couple, she still won't betray Su Wu. Despite her attraction to Gao Ping, she finds solace in the wordless acceptance and love extended to her by the introverted Dong Zi.
Wang has a lot on his mind in "So Close to Paradise,'' a film in which outsiders are the real losers in big city life. Dong Zi, as a typical "shoulder pole'' -- the city folks' derogatory term for rural illiterates who do the dirty work -- is making more money, but is still living hand-to-mouth, with none of the sense of peace or community he experienced in his small village. Gao Ping seems better off, but his success is obviously due to illegal activities of some kind, which leads, as Dong Zi reveals at the beginning of the film, to his death.
Even Ruan Hong, a Vietnamese girl who came to China with her heart set on a singing career, has had to settle for her job in a sleazy nightclub. When the nightclub is raided, she is shamed on national television as a prostitute, which she is not.
Whereas "Suzhou River'' was one of those movies where sadness seems cool, the bleakness of "So Close to Paradise'' is unsettling. The grimy alleyways, sewage-laden rivers and rag-tag apartments are almost lyrical. Wang is a no-frills filmmaker; sometimes his movies seem too cut-and-dried -- who eschews the jolting hand-held camerawork currently in fashion for a more traditional approach.
What keeps the film real is Wang's obvious love of his country. State-run media and the corruptness of the city can't mute, for example, the philosophical strength of the two middle-aged women who sing traditional songs for money, or the boys' landlord, who gives them another month when she realizes they are giving her all the money they have.
It's really not much fun to be on the outside looking in, and Wang does an excellent job of conveying that feeling. But in China, there has always been a spirit of togetherness that, "So Close to Paradise" seems to suggest, exists in spite of the "official" surroundings.
[G. Allen Johnson is a San Francisco-based contributing critic to indieWIRE.]