Suzhou River (2000)

Review #1,083

Director:  Lou Ye
Cast:  Zhou Xun, Jia Hongshen, Hua Zhongkai
Plot:  The river Suzhou that flows through Shanghai is a reservoir of filth, chaos and poverty, but also a meeting place for memories and secrets.  Lou Ye, who spent his youth on the banks of the Suzhou, shows the river as a Chinese Styx, in which forgotten stories and mysteries come together.

Genre:  Drama / Romance
Awards:  Won FIPRESCI Prize (Viennale).
Runtime:  83min
Rating:  PG for some sensuality.

The Chinese "Vertigo" if you will, Suzhou River eschews Hitchcock's alluring, continuity style for a more unpolished aesthetic.  It is the aesthetic of post-2000s cinema – gritty, disjointed, schizophrenic even.  It is such a raw style that pushed writer-director Lou Ye to the forefront of a new Chinese cinema, represented by what we come to know now as the 6th Generation. 

A key work of this period, Suzhou River calls to attention the post-millennial syndrome, exploring issues as diverse as fractured memories to a collective psychological displacement.  Modernization throttles on, but Shanghai where the film is set, remains caught in a continuous web of stasis, troublingly linking a forgotten past to an unknown future.  The people are indefinitely displaced, stuck in a loop.

In essence, Lou's film hints that we are not free.  By centering his narrative on a man who loses his love, but after some years, believes a woman who looks like his lost love to be her, Lou tells a cyclical story in which there is no ending, except one of reproduced fable and myth.  It is the myth of (and for) our time.

Zhou Xun, in one of her early breakthrough roles, plays the woman in both incarnations, highlighting not just her acting versatility but also projecting herself as separately innocent and sultry.  Like Kim Novak in Vertigo (1958), she is a mystery and a complication, an embodiment of the aforementioned post-millennial syndrome in which the trace is missing.  Perhaps only when lost, can one be free from his or her own trace, to which one can then regain a new foothold in a world of ghosts.  

With quick cuts and a shaky handheld non-digital camera (it was surprisingly shot in 35mm), Suzhou River works as both a thriller and a romance drama.  We see snapshots of a post-industrial Shanghai – there're smog, dirty rivers and urban decay.  It is a progression through regression, and as far as Lou is concerned, he provides a not-so-pleasant commentary on the State of affairs in his native home. 

Widely regarded as the controversial director's career breakthrough, Suzhou River is surprisingly risqué-lite; a far cry from his provocative (perhaps more well-known) later works like Summer Palace (2006) and Spring Fever (2009).  It is, of course, no less compelling.

Verdict:  Lou Ye’s breakthrough is a risqué-lite affair, shot in a gritty, disjointed style that pays homage to Hitchcock’s Vertigo.


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