Suzhou River (2000)

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

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Review #1,083

Dir. Lou Ye
2000 | China | Drama/Romance | 83 mins | 1.85:1 | Mandarin

PG (passed clean)

Cast: Zhou Xun, Jia Hongshen, Yao Anlian
Plot: The film stars Zhou Xun in a dual role as two different women and Jia Hongsheng as a man obsessed with finding a woman from his past.
Awards: Won Tiger Award (Rotterdam)
Source: Coproduction Office

Accessibility Index
Subject Matter: Moderate – Past; Identity; Displacement
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: Slightly Arthouse

Viewed: National Museum of Singapore (Perspectives Film Festival)
First Published: 29 Sep 2014
Spoilers: No

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 Sixth 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.

Grade: A-




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