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Movie Review

'Suzhou River' Flows With Cinematic, Hitchcockian Style

November 10, 2000|KENNETH TURAN | TIMES FILM CRITIC

Whatever you think when you think about films from China (if you thinkanything at all), "Suzhou River" will come as a bracing surprise. An assured exercise in high cinematic style, it references a variety of films and filmmakers--Alfred Hitchcock not the least of them--but what it is preeminently is alive and dynamic.

"Suzhou River" is written and directed by Lou Ye, a key figure in the young Sixth Generation of mainland filmmakers who are doing things differently than Fifth Generation giants like Zhang Yimou and Chen Kiage. Daring and edgy, it's a German co-production (critical for avoiding censorship) that's filled with the intoxicating excitement of creating images for the screen.

What this love of movie-making is most reminiscent of is the bravura quality of the French New Wave. With its jump cuts, jazzy camera work and an intricate storytelling style that never stops to catch its breath, "Suzhou River" exults in visual razzle-dazzle.

All this is visible in a remarkable opening sequence that would be ordinary in less deft hands. The film's nameless narrator-director (safely hidden by the camera's first person point of view, a vantage point that echoes Robert Montgomery's "Lady in the Lake") takes us on a tour of the Suzhou, a river that runs through Shanghai.

"It's the filthiest river, with an eternity's worth of stories and rubbish," the narrator says with typically neo-noir world-weariness that compliments the brooding images that flash by. "If you watch it long enough, the river will show you everything."

But "Suzhou River" is more than a jittery travelogue; it has a tricky story that convincingly riffs on Hitchcock's "Vertigo," a tale of love, voyeurism and obsession that casually plays with dramatic conventions without any sacrifice of narrative drive.

The faceless storyteller is a freelance videographer. "Pay me," he says as he paints his pager number on vacant walls, "and I'll shoot anything. But don't complain if you don't like what you see."

The owner of a divey bar--incongruously called the Happy Tavern--signs on as a client, asking for a video of the place's mermaid act, which features a girl in a blond wig swimming in a big tank. Her name is Meimei (Zhou Xun), and the videographer immediately falls for her, hard. "When she closes the door," he says, "I feel life stopping."

It's through Meimei that the videographer hears the story of Marder (Jia Hongsheng), a stoic former street tough who works as a courier and lives only for his motorbike. Partly through what he's heard, partly through his imagination, the videographer starts inventing and then refining the story of Marder and the love of his life Moudan.

A teenage girl with twin ponytails and a pixie smile, Moudan (also played by Zhou Xun) starts as a kind of delivery job for Marder. The daughter of a Shanghai smuggler, she has to be ferried to an aunt's apartment when her father entertains women, which is often. Marder does the transporting, and though he is impassive at first, Moudan's teasing--she demands he drive his bike like Arnold Schwarzenegger--finally gets him emotionally involved.

If this story sounds too pat, the videographer agrees with you. Soon, like Scheherezade, he is embroidering it yet again, adding complications to these characters' lives. Adding even more layers, Marder takes over his own story and even materializes in the flesh, creating new problems in the videographer's life that have everything to do with the fact that Moudan and Meimei look exactly alike.

Though these narrative devices are cumbersome to describe, they work with such ease on film you hardly even notice them as you're pulled along deeper into the story.

As much about style as about love, "Suzhou River" echoes a lot of films, from the Hong Kong style of Wong Kar Wei to Kieslowski's "The Double Life of Veronique," but the sum total is something with a freshness of its own.

* Unrated. Times guidelines: adult subject matter.

'Suzhou River'

Zhou Xun: Moudan, Meimei

Jia Hongsheng: Marder

Released by Strand Releasing. Director Lou Ye. Producers Nai An and Philippe Bober. Screenplay Lou Ye. Cinematographer Wang Yu. Editor Karl Riedl. Music Jorg Lemberg. Production design Li Zhuoyi. Running time: 1 hour, 23 minutes.

In limited release.

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