I Cover the Waterfront

Love and mermaids in Suzhou River

In Suzhou River, a waterlogged little jewel of a Chinese movie that you must rush out and see at once or else, a young videographer obsessively combs the crime-infested Shanghai waterfront, ostensibly to drum up work shooting the odd wedding or birthday party. In fact, he's trying to find the girlfriend who may have left him—a moody, luscious-lipped go-go dancer named Meimei (Zhou Xun), whose gig entails swimming around a large fish tank at the dingy "Happiness Tavern," gussied up as a golden-haired mermaid. We never see our nameless protagonist: represented only by his voice and his camera, he's a wonderfully unreliable narrator, unnerved by loneliness and loss, yet at the same time enchanted by the endless possibilities of the man-made river that houses "a century's worth of stories and rubbish."

Pretty soon, the videographer is weaving a second lovelorn tale into his own, one whose events and passions cleave so closely to his that it grows unclear which of the four linked characters he's "created" actually exists, let alone who is telling the truth, and to whom, and when. A handsome young motorcycle courier named Mardar (Jia Hongsheng) with ties to Shanghai's petty-crime underworld has been tailing Meimei, convinced that she is Moudan (also played by Zhou Xun), the child-woman lover he long ago betrayed. Brokenhearted, Moudan jumped into the river and disappeared, spawning a host of sightings by the river people and a local legend of her return as a mermaid. Meimei, who thrives on being hopelessly longed for, angrily rebuffs Mardar at first, then toys with him about her true identity and finally, enthralled by his guilt and undying love, warms to him enough to be horrified by news of a dead body—two, actually—being fished out of the river.

It's possible to read Suzhou River as yet another portrait of disaffected youth on the lam. Certainly the movie's four wounded souls are paid-up members of a dropout generation without a future—and, alarmingly, without a discernible past. Like his friends, Mardar passes the hours idly prowling the streets, running odd jobs for gangsters, coveting high-tech toys he can barely afford, or holed up in the hovel he calls home watching pirated videos. Lou Ye, the 35-year-old writer/director of Suzhou River and a leading light in the newish "sixth generation" of Chinese filmmakers, has none of his forebears' defensive hostility toward the Western pop culture they see as tainting the purity of traditional Chinese filmmaking. Neither does he particularly worship the West: the world he creates is the world he grew up in, an East-West jumble that he accepts with dispassionate affection.

For all its realist veneer, Suzhou River is in no way a work of sociological agitprop. With its dreamy, on-the-fly cinematography, its breezily abbreviated gangster scenes alternating with a voyeurism at once goofy and wistful, the movie owes more to the dirty-old-town romanticism of Wong Kar-Wai's Chungking Express than to any Western film noir—right down to its elusive, blond-wigged woman. Like Kar-Wai, Ye is drunk on a medley of styles—but like him, too, Ye is no slave to aesthetics. Suzhou River has a casual, thrilling specificity. Far from being a stuffy symbol of foreign imperialism, the blond mermaid is part of the movie's cultural scenery, fanciful for sure, ludicrous perhaps, but no more incongruous to our observer than the boats cruising slowly by the watchful eye of his camera. If she signifies anything, it's the endless dance of pursuer and pursued, the elusiveness of romantic love, which fascinates Ye as it does Kar-Wai.

Suzhou River ends as it begins, with Meimei poking her face into her lover's video recorder to quiz him on whether, if she disappeared, he would search for her his whole life. I won't tell you his answer or her response. But it's a long time since I've seen as eloquent and passionate an evocation of our unceasing, unquenchable, unattainable longing not merely to be loved, but to be loved alone and forever.

Suzhou River was written and directed by lou ye; produced by nai an and philippe bober; and stars Zhou Xun and jia hongsheng. Now playing at the nuart, WEst Los Angeles.

 
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