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Suzhou River


Suzhou River

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A complex and beguiling clutter of movie-movie reference points and vibrant real-world impressions of Shanghai, Lou Ye's Suzhou River retools Hitchcock's Vertigo to lend a splash of colorful fantasy to a setting dominated by drab, oppressive grays. The fetid waterway, a corrosive pulse of human and industrial waste that winds through the heart of the city, may be the film's most compelling character, feeding its noir-like atmosphere of romantic fatalism. For the lead character, an unseen videographer who sees the world entirely through his camera, there's a palpable need to escape this environment by telling stories and keeping a voyeuristic distance. Hired by a neon-lit local bar to video its mermaid act, he's instantly transfixed by the beautiful and mysterious young woman (Zhou Xun) swimming around in the tank. His obsessive relationship with her, shown only from the eye of the camera, is also shared by the audience, which has to rely on his subjective point-of-view. This becomes especially tricky when he hears the story of a motorcycle courier (Jia Hongsheng) who falls in love with a teenage girl who looks exactly like Zhou, only with dark hair and ponytails instead of the mermaid's flowing blonde wig. A former street tough with connections to the criminal underworld, Jia gets caught up in a plot to kidnap the girl for ransom, which ends with the girl's apparent suicide and a short prison term for him. Convinced that she's still alive somewhere in Shanghai, he scours the city looking for her, only to come across the lookalike mermaid. It may take multiple viewings to sort out the densely convoluted story, which is complicated by multiple and unreliable narrators, frenzied camerawork, and the presence of two women who may or may not be the same person. But like Vertigo—and Brian DePalma's seductive facsimile Obsession—the inherent implausibility of Suzhou River is beside the point, giving way to a mood piece saturated with bright primary colors and intense emotion. A new voice in China's rising Sixth Generation of filmmakers, Lou appropriates the kinetic style of Hong Kong directors like Wong Kar-Wai, reinterpreting the world around him through the same movie-savvy sensibility. While Lou isn't yet a master of Wong's caliber, Suzhou River defies the relative austerity of Fifth Generation stalwarts such as Xhang Yimou and Chen Kaige, picturing the mainland in a refreshingly different light.