Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context
Issue 7, March 2002

Dir. Lou Ye

Suzhou River

Produced by Philippe Bober, 2000
Cast: Zhou Xun, Jia Hongsheng
Language: Mandarin/English subtitles
Running time 83 minutes

reviewed by Jerry Clode

  1. Suzhou River is a brooding tale of amour foe filmed in Shanghai by young Chinese director Lou Ye. In this film, Shanghai is introduced, not as a showcase of economic modernisation, but rather a dark and decrepit city where people strive endlessly for fulfilment. The polluted hues of Suzhou River provide the backdrop, as subjective conceptions of love are frustrated and ultimately disappointed.
  2. The subjective viewpoint of a lonely videographer, that forms the basis of the film, is brilliantly communicated by the dextrous camerawork of Wang Yu and narration of Hua Zhongkai. The docu-drama style follows the narrator as he makes a careful study of the human traffic that passes his balcony. Noting the emotional vicissitudes of others, the videographer is resigned that he will be drawn into the search for romance and must inevitably surrender his voyeuristic reclusivity.
  3. Meimei (Zhou Xun), a performing mermaid at the Happy Tavern nightclub, unexpectedly illuminates the life (and lens) of the videographer. Contrasting starkly with the dingy surroundings that host her aquarium, Meimei's blond wig and glittering tailsuit signify the opportunity for transcendence. The out-of-tank romance that ensues reveals a playful exhibitionist with a secretive past. Despite initial euphoria, the narrator is deeply troubled by Meimei's bouts of unexplained silence and periods of absence. She slips in and out of his life, leaving suddenly to merge with the human traffic with which he previously maintained only a casual connection.
  4. The narrator's anxiety is fuelled further by the arrival of Mada (Jia Hongsheng) who claims Meimei is his long-lost love. Mada persistently attempts to convince Meimei that she is the girl for whom he has been searching. Fusing the utterances of Meimei, confusing encounters with Mada, urban legend and his own emotional grievance, the narrator constructs the story of Mada and his true love Mudan. Actress Zhou Xun plays both women, providing Mada's claims and the narrator's imaginings with a textual basis.
  5. Mada is, or is imagined to be, a suave and tight-lipped motorcycle courier entrusted with an important delivery. Mudan, the daughter of a local alcohol baron, must be delivered to a relative while her father entertains prostitutes. Brimming with pert and desperate to evade her dull existence, Mudan demands Mada 'rides fast, fast like Schwarzenegger' as she clings to her handsome charge. Their mutual affection culminate on Mudan's birthday, when after he gifts her a blond mermaid doll they escape with a bottle of her father's buffalo grass vodka. Mudan's joy is lush and unabashedly portrayed as she rides drunken alongside dyeing architecture and a crimson sunset.
  6. Romance is complicated when Mada realises he has haplessly acted as a pawn for a local gang syndicate who plan to kidnap Mudan. Despite indignation, Mada is forced to commit the ultimate act of betrayal. Detained by Mada in a deserted warehouse, Mudan's childish advances are coldly and violently rejected. After berating Mada over the price of the ransom (read the relationship), Mudan sprints violently towards the river. Mada catches up only to find Mudan hanging perilously on the bridge rail. As Mudan falls towards the river, she prophesises her return as a mermaid, thus fusing the narrative and sub-narrative threads.
  7. Suzhou offers a narrator/narration that remains sufficiently indeterminate and unreliable to deflate any possibility of a stable subject from which to unravel this unlikely tale. At times, the videographer abdicates his story-telling responsibilities to Meimei and Mada, destabilising and merging various identities. The narrator's torment over the loss of Meimei is vented and rationalised vicariously through his fairy-tale understanding of Mada. The motif of heavy rain is successfully employed to suggest and remind that recollections of Mada and Mudan are tempered by the videographer's own frustration. Distinction between the two male protagonists is made problematic by their mutual obsession for the impenetrably ethereal Meimei. Meimei's own transition from dangerous seductress to fallible romantic—manifest in her yielding to Mada's vision of her—produce the possibility she is indeed Mudan, further clouding notions of identity.
  8. While the romances depicted are tragic, the film is sympathetic to its marginal characters' attempts to transcend their dilapidated surrounds. The imagery of the mermaid is playfully juxtaposed with the blank sterility of urban existence imbuing the film with optimism. The garish vision of Meimei swimming in her tank amidst a disco dive echoes the universally experienced incompatibility between romantic fantasy and objective reality.
  9. Noting the theme of female duplicity, many critics have all too easily seen the film as a Chinese interpretation of Hitchcock's 1958 classic, Vertigo. Such comparisons are probably more inspired by the film's haunting Bernard Hermann-esque musical score than a careful appreciation of Suzhou's subtly crafted intricacies. Lacking the cynicism and anti-romantic posturing of Hitchcock, Suzhou is more derivative of Wong Kai-war's visual fetishism. Lou Ye celebrates romance as an actual lived event replete with disappointment and frustration, not just an anchor for a movie.
  10. Suzhou showcases the brilliant talents of Zhou Xun and Jia Hongsheng. Zhou's dual portrayal of the questionably innocent Mudan and the emotionally reserved Meimei inject Suzhou with a unique sense of tension and allure. Lou Ye is the first sixth generation director with whom Zhou has collaborated.[1] The diversity of Zhou's television work makes her ideal for the postmodern allegory of new Chinese cinema. Perhaps best known to transnational audiences as the blind girl in Chen Kaige's Emperor and the Assassin (1999), Zhou won best female actor at the Paris Film Festival for Suzhou attracting considerable attention from both local and international filmmakers. Following roles in Wang Xiaoshuai's Beijing Bicycle (2000) and Fruit Chan's Hollywood Hong Kong (2001), Zhou will help French-based filmmaker Dai Sijie bring his hugely popular novel Balzac and the Chinese Seamstress to screen. Provided amble opportunity, Zhou Xun's talents and powerful cinematic presence will assure her increasing familiarity to a wider global audience.
  11. Jia Hongsheng has been intimately involved in the productions of the sixth generation filmmakers. Jia featured in Lou Ye's first film as well as the artist who presents fake suicides in Wang Xiaoshuai's Frozen 1997 (jiandu hanleng). However prior to his role in Suzhou Jia spent many years battling serious drug addiction. His obsession with Beatles music leads to the belief that he was John Lennon's spiritual son. Director Zhang Yang (Shower 1999), a close friend of Jia, has convinced the actor to work on a docu-drama on his experience as a junkie recluse. The result is Quitting [Zuotian] 2002, a remarkable production where Jia's parents and friends play themselves in a reconstruction of Jia's 'missing years'.
  12. Shot with a television production licence (less strictly controlled than film) and with substantial financial input from a German production company, Suzhou was directed without compromise by Lou.[2] In contrast to more politically accommodating offerings from China's more senior filmmakers, Lou's film-noire characters offer a glimpse at the malaise that saturates China's contemporary urban landscape. Despite copping the inhibiting tag di xia [underground production], Suzhou may yet be screened on the Mainland due the media profiles of Zhou Xun and Jia Hongsheng. The maturity and sophistication of Suzhou avoids the reactionary nature of young Chinese filmmaking suggesting instead exciting new styles and innovation.


    [1] The sixth generation of Chinese filmmakers were educated at the Beijing Film Academy during the 1980s, beginning professional careers during the 1990s. Their films are impudent and urban in theme, distinguishing them from their predecessors (fifth generation) such as Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige.

    [2] Suzhou River was originally filmed as two 37-minute episodes for the television production Supercities that featured the work of young filmmakers. It was only after the financial contribution of Berlin-based producer Philippe Bober that the film was edited into a full-length feature.


This paper was originally published in Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context, with the assistance of Murdoch University.

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