August 21 at Doc Films: “Suzhou River”

Turning its back on the rapidly developing, booming face of Shanghai at the turn of the century, Lou Ye’s Suzhou River, showing at Doc Films on Thursday, August 21, is a gritty portrayal of tragic love in the underbelly of the world’s largest city.

An unnamed, faceless videographer walks along the titular Suzhou River, spray-painting signs for his business on the crumbling warehouses that line the riverside. He’s hired to shoot a commercial for a local bar, the Happy Tavern, and falls in love with the bar’s main attraction, a woman named Meimei who swims on display at the bar as a mermaid. Despite their romance, Meimei disappears for long stretches of time, to the videographer’s dismay.

Meimei tells the videographer about a new customer at the bar, Mardar. Mardar once worked as a motorcycle courier and was hired to drive around a young girl named Moudan while her wealthy father entertained his mistresses. Mardar and Moudan fell in love, but after Mardar fell into a plot to kidnap Moudan that then went awry, Moudan disappeared. Mardar now spends his time wandering Shanghai, looking for Moudan, and he believes Meimei, identical in looks to Moudan, to be his lost love. More to the videographer’s dismay, Meimei begins to fall in love with Mardar as he visits her and tells his tale.

In sharing these stories – the videographer’s, Meimei’s, and Mardar’s – the film slowly nests and takes on the highly subjective point-of-view of each new narrator, suggesting that the truth displayed may not be as straightforward as one thinks. In large part, the narration is helmed by the videographer, whose words open the movie and provide a framework for watching it: he’ll shoot anything, but don’t blame him if you don’t like what you see.

Due to this lack of an omniscient viewpoint, the absolute facts of the film remain a little blurry or difficult to piece together entirely. Testimonials from all of the characters seem to make it clear by the end that Meimei and Moudan are not the same person, but because the narration is always the opinion of a single person at a time, there’s room for mistakes or withholding information. After all, we know from the videographer’s narration that Meimei disappears from his experience often, so how do we know that she doesn’t become Moudan during those stretches of time? Furthermore, can we even trust one narrator’s interpretation of the events?

For the portions of the film under the videographer’s narration, the camera takes on his view directly, thereby never showing his face or most of his appearance to the viewer (we do see his hands as he drinks or taps his cigarette against an ashtray). In addition to informing the unreliable narration, the effect of this camera work is to place the viewer directly in the action in a stark, unavoidable way. It’s impossible to shy away from Mardar spilling his long story of Moudan and his search for lost love as he stares directly into the camera and into your soul.

Lou has denied that Alfred Hitchock’s Vertigo served a direct influence on Suzhou River, but its ghost haunting a man’s attachment to his love’s clone cannot be denied. To play Madeleine/Judy to Mardar’s Scottie, then, Zhou Xun delivers two very excellent and distinct performances as the bubbly Moudan and the moody Meimei. The two roles never overlap in the way the women do in Vertigo, but there’s just enough careful subtlety in Zhou’s acting to maintain the chance that Meimei and Moudan are connected after all.

With its circular plot structure, Suzhou River ends exactly where it begun: the videographer walking down the banks of the river, advertising his business on the discarded buildings that surround him. How this fits into the chronology of the movie is never made explicit, but it does serve to emphasize the insignificance of the people’s stories amid the greater urban milieu. Tragic love or not, the river keeps flowing.

For more information about Doc Films, visit docfilms.uchicago.edu.