on October 17, 2001
Having followed Mainland Chinese cinema for sometime, I was very eager to view "Suzhou River." I finally did see it, renting it through one of the local Chinese video stores in the area. After the first viewing, I was completely blown away! I was totally mesmerized by the story, the setting, and the characters. If only America could produce such quality movies!
The main plotline revolves around a videographer, a motorcycle courier, and two different young women (who could possibly be the same person). That's all I'll say without revealing any more information...
Many have dubbed this a "Chinese Vertigo," but I feel this in incorrect. The two movies do share some similarities, but they are still different. "Suzhou River" is not exactly like Hitchcock's "Vertigo"; it contains so much more, and for me had much of a greater emotional impact. (Of course being able to understand Mandarin Chinese does help.)
The acting is superb and the story, great. It is very believable as in this could possibly happen in real life. Especially magnificent is the radiant Zhou Xun's performance. An artistically well done film with interesting story telling and Wong Kar-Wai style cinematography that is a must see. It's a shame that people have missed out and overlooked this complex and moving gem of a movie.
Certainly, one of the best movies in the long time, and so much better than almost everything Hollywood is producing these days. Please go out and buy it. You will not be let down.
on November 16, 2007
Great new twist on film noir--two interlaced narratives--like two dragons wrapped around each other. The real and the unreal spun together to make the surreal. The narration comes at you from many directions. I've read the other reviews online, including the professional reviews, and I don't see anyone catching the depth of this film, mostly, I assume, because they are not watching and listening close enough. There are some who are even saying it has a simple plot. There is nothing simple about the plot of this movie whatsoever.
The narrator is a videographer for hire. He falls in love with a sometimes elusive woman who at one point asks him if he'd spend his life searching for her if she ever completely disappeared--just like a man, Mardar, searched for the woman he loved, Moudan, in a sad local legend which allegedly occurred in their same Shanghai urban-industrial neighborhood which surrounds the filthy Suzhou River--Shanghai's main waterway. "Everyone should have a love story like that," the videographer recounts his girlfriend saying to him. Each of us our own passionate, tragic love story. An interesting concept. The narrator claims confidently to himself that he could come up with one of those.
A man on a motorcycle, a couple arguing, a man sitting on his balcony, and there, a motorcycle courier with a black helmet, and there, a girl passing by, or maybe walking away, her leaving, with pig tails and a black backpack.
"I will shoot anything you want me to, but don't complain if you don't like what you see. Cameras don't lie," he had said earlier.
A little clue: if you think the Moudan/Mardar story is the actual Moudan/Mardar story, then you are not paying close enough attention to the narration.
It's the good old femme fatale with secrets amongst the hoods setup that the narrator will entertain us with--the old, "there I was minding my own business and then she stepped into my world--gorgeous, mysterious, and alluring--and that's when it all started" kind of stuff. A solid film noir complete with a music soundtrack straight out of the best American film noir--might even be lifted from the best of them, I don't know, but it sounds so great. This film noir, though, is very slippery and exceptionally hard to hold, like something big and alive from out of the water.
The story is shown at times directly through the eyes of the narrator--well, actually, through the lens of the videographer narrator as his point of view exists almost entirely like a video camera viewfinder--but that, of course, is ridiculous, because in most of the scenes he couldn't possibly be holding up a camera as he converses with people and chases and drinks and loves--there's even times when we see both of his hands in front of him. Who would be holding the camera unless a lens was somehow mounted on his face? So no camera, but a camera point-of-view, always, never stationary, never tripod mounted, always moving, always just like a viewfinder--that's the image we get, and at one point the narrator even has a drink thrown in his face--well no, not face exactly--rather his lens face, we're reminded, as the liquid splashes against the lens glass.
Why is the narrator always a viewfinder? As a viewfinder, he is always one step back from his world--always with the lens glass as a protective barrier against the world he lives in--well, supposedly lives in. (Or does he live in it at all?) Does he need protection? Is there some kind of psychological need for this one-eyed point-of-view? Has he melded with his camera lens spiritually? Is he actually a cyclops spiritually, a monster? Or does this one-eyed viewfinder point-of-view involve some kind of modus operandi?
Not all of what he sees through his viewfinder is the world he supposedly lives in, though. Much of the film follows the character of the other man, Mardar--first in the past to show the fabled story of Mardar and his love Moudan with voice-over by the narrator, and then in the present as the narrator supposedly comes into contact with Mardar, and while in the present, after the narrator decides to relight (literally) the almost dead story, he hands the point-of-view to Mardar so Mardar can finish his own story, he says. During this Mardar point-of-view sequence, we even see the narrator--well, actually, only his hand and his shadow cast against the window of his frosted glass door--you know, the kind of door that Sam Spade and the other P.I.'s in other film noirs always had with their name printed across the glass. Well ok, so what is this movie? Is it the cameraman's personal viewfinder story or is it Mardar's story, or is it your standard third-person point-of-view movie?
But wait a minute. This is a movie, so of course there was a viewfinder present at all times, since a movie--at least, one that's not computer animated--is things transpiring in front of a camera, and this is the videographer's movie, so that would mean it's his viewfinder that the whole movie is made with. Or is it his movie? Isn't there a guy named Ye Lou involved here? He's the person who made this movie, who got the actors and technicians together to do things with the camera,. So who's in control of the viewfinder? Ye Lou or his videographer character? Are Ye Lou and the videographer one and the same person? Does Ye Lou know about love and lost love? Is he the actual authority who inhabits the character of the narrator and his story?
So here we are in a good old 1950's style film noir in a good old late Twentieth Century post-modern dilemma. Who is the narrator and what is his story referring to? Is he credible at all and making an objective presentation, or is this a story twisted and contorted to his point of view and purely self-serving? Questions of who is lying and who is telling the truth, who is false and who is true--the standard film noir setting--is the great part of the mix of this incredible narration. Where is story and where is documentary and where is real time? And the backbone of this slippery half real, half unreal scaley creature called a movie is pure tragic romance, but whose romance? There are two parallel romance stories at work here, and both are definitely true because we see them, right? The camera's right there showing all this to us so they must be true and meaningful stories. We see them happening. The camera doesn't lie. Moudan and MeiMei look right into the camera, so they have to be real too.
And what about this narrator? Is he a liar? His personal femme fatale calls him one. He makes movies, and movies always tell the truth, so moviemakers are always truthful. The truth about love that the movies show to us is the real truth about love--and since they say it is so, then there is a real truth about love and we're looking right at it. The reality of love is right in front of our eyes--coming straight to us through the lens, script or no script--and this is how love works, just as we're shown.
This is a dirty world, and some people live their whole life in it, the narrator tells us about the Suzhou River in the beginning of the movie; and we know, moviemaking is a dirty, but always truthful, job; and we see, this movie is pure film noir full of femme fatale; and we wonder, who here in this drama actually has the upper hand? Who's going to come out the winner?
"I saw the bodies of two young lovers being dragged out of the water..."
"As for love, I could tell you that I saw a mermaid once..."
Another clue: If you think that the actual Moudan looked exactly like MeiMei, then you probably believe in mermaids.
A fabulous, intricate, intelligent movie. Well worth many viewings, especially since it may take many viewings to catch the complexity it is weaving. It did for me. A wonderful movie to own for that reason alone.
It should be noted. The lead actress, Xun Zhou, is amazingly ingenious, switching from one completely convincing personality to another, showing an amazing range of acting skill. Truly, the equivalent of an Oscar winning performance for best actess. I want to know how they did the back drop into the river shot. Did she really do that? Hard to believe. If she did, wow, that's devotion to the part and to the profession! Look at it closely. I can't see at all that it was faked. Boggles the mind.
on May 19, 2006
First, some geography. Suzhou River runs from the city of Suzhou (which I have visited several times) down through Shanghai (which I have also visited several times), where it forms the north border of the city's old commercial hub, the Bund. The opening sequence of the film is a strikingly accurate montage of Shanghai river life: filty water, lined with decaying old buildings in places, and peopled by poor boat and barge operators who live in small quarters on their rivercraft. This is the China not of glossy chic stores but of the gritty realities of industrialization and large-scale poverty.
Stylistically, the film employs "new cinema" techniques such as hand-held cameras and saturated reds and greens reminiscient of Wong Kar-Wai's use of color and composition. The movie is categorized, for lack of a better label, as "noir," as the grittiness, sleazy night life and depiction of low-life criminals harkens back to the film noir popular in the 1950s.
The core of the movie, however, is a well-used plot gimmick most famously explored by the Hitchcock classic "Vertigo": a question of identity. This is not to say that such derivative plots are bad--it's just that the treatment has to be fresh or we end up feeling that we've seen the film before. On top of this basic plot--is this beautiful young woman the girl who the bike messenger betrayed years before?--is layered another cinematic technique: the POV (point of view), in which the film is narrated by a low-end video producer. Indeed, we never see him, as the camera angle is POV throughout, e.g. we see what he sees, as if his eyes were the camera.
The narrator tells his own tale of meeting and falling into a relationship with the gorgeous young woman (Xun Zhou) who performs as a mermaid in a neon-lit bar for a living, and then introduces the story of the motorbike messenger and his doomed relationship with a teenaged girl who has a crush on him. For reasons which are left murky (shall we just call it slapdash?), the messenger gets involved in a kidnap/ransom scheme in which he kidnaps the girl. Once freed, she jumps into the Suzhou River and promptly disappears.
At this point, he turns the narration over to Mardar, the messenger, and retreats until the final reel in which he has Mardar beaten up as a rival for the affection of the beautiful young woman. Confused yet? The problem with the film isn't the complicated narrative and POV--it's that we don't believe the characters are real. They are players in a noir fairy tale of sorts, perhaps, but not real people with emotions we can grasp. Indeed, the lead actors and actress are expressionless.
Why did Mardar betray the girl who loved him? Did he have no other choice? It seems he had plenty of other options: escape with her, betray the crooks, etc. So having betrayed her, he seeks redemption through finding her again. But then when he apparently does find her, the couple is found dead in the Suzhou River: accident or suicide, we have no clue, but again it seems like a contrivance rather than something integral to the characters.
Equally improbably, we're told the beautiful woman leaves the narrator for days on end without explanation, and though this "drives him crazy," he never asks her about it, follows her, etc. The characters are strangely detached from real-life motivations, desires, and emotions. As a result, we are left with a certain dissatisfaction with characters whose internal traits and experiences do not seem consistent or "real." Contrast this with the characters in "Blue," who are at a minimum consistent with what we've been shown, and consistent with emotions and reactions we can understand.
Though "Suzhou River" is a visually compelling movie, with first-rate cinematography and technique, a noir assembly does not a character or film make.