Suzhou River (2000)
Reviewed by: ewaffle on 2010-08-24
Some world cities have notable rivers whose names are inextricably entwined with the city itself and which help to define the very life of their citizens. Paris has the Seine, London the Thames, St. Petersburg the Neva. While Shanghai is comparable to those cities the Suzhou River doesn't is more a polluted, canalized stream that serves as just another route for commercial traffic. However as Comden and Green remind us, "something is always happening on the river" and a lot happens in "Suzhou River". Much of what happens isn't clear on a first viewing and there isn't enough artistry to warrant a closer inspection although indirection and ambiguity could be part of director Lou Yes's intent.

The slender plot involves Marder, a young man who is trusted by his boss to get the boss's daughter, Moudan, out of the way whenever the boss has a new girlfriend--which is quite often. They get along wonderfully but Marder is looking for the main chance and allows a friend to talk him into setting up a kidnap for ransom plot with Moudan, although she isn't really kidnapped, simply being entertained for longer than usual.

Moudan realizes how she had been used and is enraged at everyone involved including her father who didn't seem very concerned with her safety and with the "kidnappers" because they asked for what she thought was an insultingly low ransom. She strikes back at by climbing over the rail of a bridge and taunting Marder that she will throw herself into the river and come back as a mermaid to haunt him. When Mardar approaches she lets go of the railing on falls into the river.

Marder does some time in prison and disappears for a few years after his release. He returns to Shanghai but he runs into a woman who looks exactly like Moudan. She is an entertainer working in a downscale club, swimming in a huge water tank with glass sides wearing a mermaid costume with an abbreviated top. Marder encounters her when he is hired by the bar's boss to videotape her act. This is the very first scene of the movie and serves as a partial narrative frame for the action around the kidnapping and (apparent) suicide that come later in the movie but earlier in "time".

The film is shot entirely from the point of view of the narrator, an omniscient type who is always at the right place at the right time. Most recent POV films have been horror or monster movies such as "Cloverfield" and George Romero's "Diary of the Dead" but it is not a style that threatens to catch on--technically challenging, it also leads to clumsy scenes such as a few in "Suzhou River" in which the narrator and Marden sit at a table in a bar conversing and we see the narrator's hand come into the frame to stub out a cigarette or pick up a glass. This seems to be Lou Ye making sure the audience gets the point: "the camera is a character--pretty cool, huh?". More successful films that use this first person POV extensively include Julian Schnabel's "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly" in which the camera takes the view of a paralyzed stroke victim looking out at the world for part of the film and "Dark Passage" the Bogart/Bacall film noir in which Bogart has escaped from prison and had plastic surgery done as a disguise with the camera looking out from his still gauze covered eyes.

At one point the narrator says "Suddenly it was as if none of this had happened." But something happened that took an hour and 20 minutes of film time, much of it filled with gritty close-ups, dizzying tilted film plane shots and jump cuts--lots of jump cuts--as if this was the first time the director was able to use all the stuff he had spent so much time learning. Which it was since this was his first feature.

The always gorgeous Zhou Xun in the double role of MeiMei/Moudan is onscreen a lot which is one of the redeeming aspects of "Suzhou River", especially since Lou Ye films her getting dressed and undressed several times. Jia Hongshen as Marder does his best with an unpromising role. He spends most of the movie happy and confused (unable to believe his luck in getting a girl like Moudan), sad and confused (unable to believe his bad luck in meeting her again only to find she isn't who he thought she was) and just plain confused.
Reviewer Score: 5