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SUZHOU RIVER (SUZHOU HE) (director/writer: Ye Lou; cinematographer: Wang Yu; editor: Karl Riedl; music: Jorg Lemberg; cast: Zhou Xun (Moudan/Meimei), Jia Hongsheng (Mardar), Yao Anlian (Boss), Nai An (Mada), Zhongkai Hua (Lao B.); Runtime: 83; A Strand Release; 2000-Cina/Ger)
“A strangely obessive love tale.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A strangely obessive love tale from the 35-year-old Chinese director Ye Lou (Weekend Lover/Don’t Be Young), using the same theme from Hitchcock’s Vertigo about mistaken identities. This visually engaging drama is set in the modern-day industrial city of Shanghai. The city is colored in film noir greys and the river is given an ominous shadowy feel. The heavy rain downpours set a grim mood. The love story is told through the eyes of an unseen young freelance videographer, who might be Ye Lou .

It opens with shots of the bustling Suzhou River that flows through Shanghai (the director’s hometown), a river the narrator loves for its mythical mysterious stories it secretly holds; even though, he says in everyday life it’s a reservoir of filth and pollution.

The narrator takes an assignment to do a videograph for the Happy Tavern to promote their mermaid act of swimming underwater in an indoor aquarium and falls in love with the one playing the attractive mermaid in a blonde wig, Meimei (Xun). When they start seeing each other he learns nothing about her past and observes that she sometimes looks sad; she also disappears for short periods of time without telling him where she’s going, as he fears she’ll be gone forever; but, he’s always relieved when she returns — as he feels ecstatic watching her walk across the bridge with her hands crossed over her chest.

The film focuses on a 26-year-old school drop-out who became a petty criminal, Mardar (Jia). He buys a stolen motorbike from one of his idler friends he hangs around with by the river and now has a steady occupation as a courier thanks to a shady woman he meets in a bar who runs a barber shop, Xia-Ho. He is hired, through her criminal contacts, by a womanizing black marketeer to deliver his school-age daughter Moudan (Xun) to her aunt for a few hours each day so he can entertain his women friends. The flirtatious girl, with two girlish pony-tails, gets Moudan to fall in love with her. He’s forced to go along with a plan to kidnap the girl and hold her until Xia-Ho and her boss, Lao B., get the ransom money.

Mardar holds Moudan in a filthy warehouse room without a toilet, and when he is about to release her she asks for how much ransom. When he tells her $45,000, she says she’s worth more than that and runs away and jumps off the bridge into the Suzhou River — but not before she gives him the evil eye and says that she will come back as a mermaid and haunt him. She’s never found. Mardar gets arrested and spends a few years in jail. When released he learns that Xia-Ho was killed by Lao B., who wanted all the money for himself. Mardar then looks all over Shanghai for Moudan to no avail. He also learns that Lao B. was killed in a police chase soon after the crime.

When Mardar accidently sees Meimei in her mermaid act at the bar, he goes to her dressing room and is positive that she’s Moudan. She has security throw him out; but when he follows to her houseboat and tells his story about his criminal past and the love he has for Moudan, she falls in love with him even though she’s not Moudan. But there is no happy ending, as eventually he must continue his search for Moudan.

Zhou Xun is successfully able to play the part of both a schoolgirl and a femme fatale who is an exotic mermaid dancer in a sleazy bar act. Jia Hongsheng is the motorbike courier who can’t tell one girl apart from the other, and tragically succumbs in his search for eternal love. The bitter narrator, who lost the only woman he ever loved, says there’s no such thing as a love that lasts forever…because nothing lasts forever. The film is captivating as a moody atmospheric piece. But it never develops into a good thriller. It plays better as an allegory. It’s a love story that feels poetic and dreamlike, and is not predictable. Its fresh look and its stylish photography is what won me over. Its similarities are to other noir pics like Robert Montgomery’s Lady in the Lake.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”