Suzhou River Review

It is very easy to compare Suzhou River, as many reviewers have done, to Hitchcock’s Vertigo and not see beyond that. It’s also impossible not to notice the similarity in the filming technique to Chungking Express or Fallen Angels, so while the description of a Wong Kar-Wai remake of Vertigo is a pretty good indication of what to expect from the film, it doesn’t really convey the richness of what is increasingly looking to be one of the best Chinese films of recent years.

The film is seen from the viewpoint of an unnamed narrator, a videographer for hire who one day stumbles into a Shanghai bar where he has a job to film a mermaid act. He gets to know and falls in love with the girl in the water-tank, Meimei (Zhou Xun). Her past remains a mystery to the narrator and when she makes off on one of her frequent disappearances he attempts to fill in the gaps with a story he has heard about a motorcycle courier, Mardar. Mixed up with a small-time crime racket, Mardar kidnapped the girl he loved, Moudan, who when released from captivity leapt into the Suzhou river where legend has it she turned into a mermaid. When Mardar returns to Shanghai years later, he spots Meimei and is convinced that she is Moudan.

The Hitchcock influence is clearly evident, Vertigo is particularly referenced in Meimei's dual identity, in her wearing of the blonde wig and the falling into the river. There is also something of the theme of searching for an idealised image, a fictional construct invented in the mind - but while Suzhou River appropriates Hitchcockian imagery, it is less interested in deeper Freudian elements of Hitchcock’s masterpiece. In Suzhou River rather, it uses the film's structure to explore the power of storytelling to transform, inspire and enrich our lives. It is in the blurring of fact and fiction between reality and romance where imagination leads to creativity - an alchemy that transforms the mundane into magic.

For the director, the space between fiction and reality that gives rise to his own creativity is the city of Shanghai itself. Not really Chinese and not really western, it is this contrast that sparks his own creative impulse. As well as literally providing a division between these contrasts - the romantic westernised glamour on one side, the grimmer reality on the other - the Suzhou River also acts as the metaphorical source of the director's creativity into which he literally bathes his characters and brings out mermaids. The dual personality storyline of Suzhou River represents the duality of Shanghai much more successfully than Wayne Wang’s heavy-handed attempt at a similar allegory for Hong Kong in Chinese Box. Unlike Wang’s film, Suzhou River works on both levels, as a love story and as an allegory. The dual nature of the city is represented not only in the Meimei/Moudan division, but also in the difference between the romantic and idealised Mardar/Moudan storyline and the more realistic and much less pleasant Narrator/Meimei relationship. Even the very nature of the filming and the storyline represents this split between the Chinese vs western styles. But there’s no need to get too bogged down in readings of the film to enjoy this. Lou Ye takes advantage of all these creative possibilities and simply crafts a beautiful, romantic and entertaining film and isn’t that all we are looking for really?

The Artificial Eye release features a superb anamorphic transfer of the film with not much in the way of artefacts. The image can look a little bit soft and out of focus and other scenes can look a little washed-out, but this is entirely the look of the film and as it should be. The film has very much a Christopher Doyle Fallen Angels kind of look and feel – handheld, always moving, with faint grain in natural low-lit conditions. There are white dust-spots and other marks that you would be accustomed to seeing on prints of other Asian films, but in this case it only adds to the "video-diary" experience of the filming. Overall the DVD picture quality is excellent, showing the full range of the brilliant colour schemes.

I’m happy to see that Artificial Eye have included the Dolby Digital 5.1 track for the film. Suzhou River doesn’t make obvious use of the surrounds, but it does contribute to the overall ambience of the film. Seen entirely in first-person from the narrator’s camera, the surround-sound brings you into the narrative. The sound is clear with some deep reverberating LFE. It’s not the kind of audio track you would use to demo your system, but it works well in the context of this particular film.

On The Waterfront (16:11)
This short film In Shanghai by Lou Ye is filmed video-diary style and narrated like a documentary. It is not directly related to Suzhou River, but the connection is obvious. Again the director is fascinated by the surface glamour of Shanghai and the reality of what lies beneath. Although it appears to be a documentary, the question over what is real and what is staged is again raised.

Stills Gallery
A slideshow of about 30 stills from the film are shown sequentially. They seem to be taken directly from the film, not promo still photography. The sequence runs for about 3 minutes and the pictures cannot be navigated through.

Suzhou River is simply a brilliant film. Clocking in at a modest 80 minutes, it cleverly mixes arthouse sensibilities and postmodern themes into a fascinating and delightful romantic thriller. It features a luminous performance from the beautiful and captivating Zhou Xun (Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, Beijing Bicycle, The Emperor and the Assassin) and renders homage to Hitchcock while remaining modern and fresh in its directional approach. Like every good film of this type, it works equally well and can be equally appreciated on any level. Whichever way you look at it, Suzhou River has it all.

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