‘Suzhou River’ – lost in Shanghai on Criterion Channel

Suzhou River (China, 2000), the polluted, garbage strewn river that snakes through Shanghai, makes for an inspired metaphor in Ye Lou’s melancholy meditation on love, memory, and obsession.

At once romantic and repulsive, the Suzhou River is described by the narrator as “the life blood of Shanghai,” which explains the diseased, crime ridden world of this mysterious drama and the sense of dislocation and betrayal established by Lou. Moto-delivery boy Mardar (Hongshen Jia) who falls in love with the schoolgirl daughter (Xhou Xun) of a smuggler and betrays her trust when he plots to kidnap her with a group of would-be underworld players. Meanwhile the unnamed, unseen narrator, whose world is defined solely by the images he records on his video camera, romances model turned performing mermaid Meimei (also Xun). But the relationship is closer to voyeurism than passion: he likes to watch.

Somewhere along the line the stories become impossibly tangled. The two women are played by the same actress and Mardar is either too confused, too obsessed, or too guilt ridden to tell the difference while filmmaker Lou is willing to leave some doubt to the real identities of these people. Mardar may in fact be a completely fictional construct of the narrator, or the narrator himself remembering the wounds that have left him a frigid voyeur.

It’s one of the most visually entrancing and incandescent films to come from China in the first decades of the 21st century. The bobbing camera, lunging jump-cuts, interweaving storylines slipping back and forth in time, and lonely voice-over recall the early work of the Hong Kong master of doomed love and disconnected lovers Wong Kar-Wai but the haunted, dreamy, lonely quality is all Lou.

For all the exploration of memory and loss and isolation, it’s inextricably tangled up in storytelling and stories, those we tell others and those we tell ourselves.

It was restored and rereleased in 2023.

Not rated, in Mandarin with English subtitles

Streams for a limited time on Criterion Channel

Also on Blu-ray and DVD and on SVOD through Amazon Video, iTunes, GooglePlay, Vudu and/or other services. Availability may vary by service.
Suzhou River [Blu-ray]
Suzhou River [DVD]

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Sean Axmaker is a Seattle film critic and writer. He writes the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website, and his work appears at RogerEbert.com, Turner Classic Movies online, The Film Noir Foundation, and Parallax View.

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