by Greg Muskewitz
A modern Hitchcockian mystery/thriller, Chinese director Lou Ye's Suzhou River is an exciting take on the old duality theme. Despite it being unkempt in the visual department, it's arrival is no less appreciated, and the foreigner's show is a satisfying meal to those starved and deprived by the dearth of any good mysteries or thrillers lately.Told from the point-of-view of a videographer (he spray paints his pager number to walls for exposure), the story takes place around the Suzhou River, a man-made waterway dating back to the Ming Dynasty. His girlfriend often tells him of the story of Moudan (Zhou Xun) and Mardar (Jia Hongsheng), the former being a young woman who was in love with the motorcycle courier, Mardar. But in a botched kidnapping/ransom attempt, she jumps into the Suzhou River, promising to return one day as a Mermaid. They were in love, but Mardar only came to fully realize this during his time in jail for his mistake.
"Suspenseful in a modern Hitchcockian way."
The videographer's girlfriend Meimei (Xun again) makes him promise that he would search for her the way Mardar promised to search for Moudan before she disappeared. Meimei is a gogo dancer, or swimmer maybe, who performs underwater as a mermaid in a bar, wearing a blonde wig. Obviously, she exactly resembles Moudan, and when Mardar is released from jail and begins searching, he is convinced that this is her --even though she says it's no such thing.
From the introduction of that, we're pitted with the quest to find out whether these two women are one in the same, very much in the Kim Novak/Vertigo way, or even the Patricia Arquette/Lost Highway way. Everything we see is through the eyes of the videographer, even when it flashes back to the original story of Moudan and Mardar. Ostensibly, that allows everything to be hand-held style, proclaiming this film as pretty much low budget, because no matter which way you weigh it, that polished look is far more desirable than that of the unprofessionally, shaky look. But as a slight benefit, by having it hand-held, and having the story shot specifically from the point-of-view of the videographer, it gives Suzhou River an almost frantic, worried quality that fits with the on-going events.
Suzhou River is more mysterious than thrilling, but there is a large amount of suspense and atmosphere that identify this as its own entity and not just a bite off of Vertigo. Ye, as writer and director knows how to make the situation intriguing, and he sets it up in an equally equivocal fashion as Vertigo, and then springs it off onto a distinct and exciting track. Partially because of the awkwardness of the camera movement and the unusual viewpointed presentation, it keeps you involved and rapt. And the fact that you don't know if it will or won't follow Vertigo's ossature, it is only natural for it to become compelling. In that, Ye keeps it compelling and fresh, weaving an almost fractured fairy tale along the way. He keeps it very atmospheric through his utilization of music, sound, visuals, and the ambient performances of Xun and Hongsheng. But where the obvious allusion is to Vertigo, my secondary remembrance was to, as I mentioned with Patricia, Lost Highway. Both of those are so much more modern in influence, mistaken identity and technique. As both of them are neo-noir, the enigmatic plots are mysterious auras are more centrally linked. Concerning the limited amount of characters, though the plot only revolves around four, because of the action and events taking place, it does not become handicapped in the same secluding way that Water Drops on Burning Rocks did.
Zhou Xun, whose performance I missed in The Emperor and the Assassin, handles the mystery around her characters quite well. As both, she is beautiful --even that is strongly evident in the bad cinematography-- but her presence as either Moudan or Meimei captured what Ye had intended. I generally tend to like stories of duality like this because you're never sure which way the plot is going to lead you. Even though it is a coin toss as to whether they will be one-in-the-same or not, I usually find it to be an interesting journey along the way to finding out, and that's what I got with Suzhou River.
http://www.landmark-theatres.comFinal Verdict: A-.
link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=4574&reviewer=172
originally posted: 01/20/01 11:25:31