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'Suzhou River'

Chinese film takes a stylish ride down 'Suzhou River'

Friday, June 22, 2001

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

"Suzhou River," now at the Regent Square Theater, is named after a waterway, choked with pollution, that runs through an industrial area of the Chinese city of Shanghai. But the story, about love's treacherous currents, could take place almost anywhere.

 
    'Suzhou River'

RATING: Unrated; contains brief violence.

PLAYERS: Zhou Xun, Jia Hongsheng.

DIRECTOR: Lou Ye.

CRITIC'S CALL: 3.5 stars.

 
 

In fact, writer-director Lou Ye -- a member of China's 6th Generation of filmmakers, born during the 1960s -- uses a modern look and style that differentiates it from the more traditional movies and themes of China's older directors. He employs hand-held cameras, a seedy urban setting and American brand names. Cinema's version of the New World Order?

An unseen videographer narrates the film, which allows his camera to tell much of the tale. The movie has echoes of both "Rear Window" and especially "Vertigo" -- Hitchcockian in theme though not in genre. Yet it also has some of the intense, frustrated romanticism of Wong Kar-wai's "In the Mood for Love," but substituting modern grunge for that film's '50s sleekness.

Far from unfolding in linear fashion, the story ends up circling back on itself or perhaps even spiraling inward, story within story within story, forcing the audience to sort out truth from fiction, whether the difference really matters or, in fact, if there is actually any difference at all.

The movie begins with the unnamed videographer drifting down Suzhou River, speaking of its importance to Shanghai, and of the people who live and work on it. All the while he is filming randomly, sometimes focusing on one person or another until his boat floats out of range.

Then he meets Meimei (Zhou Xun), a pretty young woman who entertains patrons at a cheesy bar by donning a blond wig and mermaid's fins and swimming in a water tank.

The camera keeps peeking at her, often surreptitiously, sometimes while she is dressing, sometimes while she is walking alone on a bridge over the Suzhou. The narrator longs for her whenever she is away. If I left, she asks him, would you spend your life looking for me, like Mardar?

Who is Mardar? An urban legend, perhaps. From a few scraps of information, the lonely narrator starts imagining the tale. Mardar (Jia Hongsheng) is a motorcycle courier who falls for Moudan, a rich smuggler's daughter.

But darker motives are at work, destined to drive them apart. Mardar ultimately begins searching for her, and his travels bring him to a seedy bar where a woman swims in a mermaid tank...

So who is imagining whom here? Is everyone real? Is anyone real? The camera doesn't lie, the narrator says. And, of course, none of these people is "real" in a literal sense. They are all characters in a movie -- two movies, actually. We are watching one projected on a screen and another that is being recorded by the narrator's camera.

Once removed, twice removed -- just like the rootless, aimless young people in the movie. Who are they? Are they like the narrator -- drifting down life's squalid stream, a place where no mermaid could survive, surrounded by people yet isolated, lost in their own movie?

Lou Ye gives them a voice, one filled with loneliness and yearning.

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