A compelling story of love and obsession whose progress mirrors the sinuous flow of the Shanghai waterway that supplies its title, “Suzhou River” represents a considerable leap in achievement for mainland Chinese director Lou Ye from his modest first feature, “Weekend Lover.” Combining narrative elements from classical Hollywood cinema — Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” in particular — with a gritty, contemporary texture, this coolly atmospheric drama deservedly won a Tiger Award in Rotterdam’s competition for first and second features. Arthouse dates in select territories should follow.
Opening narration keys the tragic romance into a context of the many stories, mysteries and secrets linked to the Suzhou, which winds like an artery through the heart of Shanghai, clogged with a century’s worth of industrial waste and domestic trash. The voiceover also introduces an unseen main character — a videographer for hire — whose work justifies the film’s extensive, restlessly probing use of rough, hand-held subjective camera.
In the opening scenes, the videomaker reminisces about his brief romance with Meimei (Zhou Xun), a nightclub dancer who lives on a houseboat and performs in an aquarium dressed as a mermaid. Her sudden disappearing act leaves him melancholy and prone to wistfully inventing stories about the human traffic that passes beneath his window.
The tale then digresses to focus on motorcycle courier Mardar (Jia Hongsheng), who is enlisted by a black marketeer in vodka to transport the man’s teenage daughter, Moudan (also played by Zhou), across town each day to her aunt while he entertains his floozies. Mardar at first appears impervious to precocious Moudan’s advances, but love soon blossoms between them. Nevertheless, he agrees to a plan concocted by his shady associates to kidnap the girl and hold her for ransom. Distraught when she finds out, Moudan bolts from captivity and throws herself into the river to her apparent death.
It’s at this point that scripter-director Lou’s homage to “Vertigo” kicks in, prompting the viewer to connect the various plot parallels of the film so far. But the story then departs on original tangents. With elements of voyeurism that recall “Rear Window” also thrown into the mix, this is a far more interesting, inventive revisiting of Hitchcock than recent Hollywood retreads such as “Psycho” or “A Perfect Murder.”
Years later after a prison stint, Mardar returns to Shanghai, where he encounters Meimei and becomes convinced she is his lost love. Meimei brushes him off at first, but as he persists, and tells her of his past with Moudan, the lines separating the two women become increasingly blurred. Meimei is irrevocably changed by her encounter with the brokenhearted stranger, prompting her to test the limits of the videographer’s devotion.
Intricately constructed and persuasively played by the two good-looking young leads, “Suzhou River” works both as a teasing, seductive mystery full of understated noirish touches and as a somber melodrama about love and loss with an emotionally resonating, tragic final act.
While the visual style employed by Lou and d.p. Wang Yu seems at first glance to belong to the oft-imitated Wong Kar-wai school, it feels dictated not by modish concerns but by the story’s tone and setting. The rough-hewn look helps conjure a living, breathing backdrop of the grimy, overpopulated, poverty-stricken city and its chaotically built-up riverside architecture. Karl Riedl’s loose, jumpy editing enhances the material’s edgy feel, as does German composer Jorg Lemberg’s score, which at times uncannily echoes Bernard Herrmann’s “Vertigo” theme.