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Take Me to the 'River'

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 6, 2001


    'Suzhou River' Zhou Xun portrays Meimei – and perhaps another character – in "Suzhou River." (Strand Releasing)
A videographer-narrator, a motorbike courier and a beautiful girl who plunges into a filthy river, seemingly to return as a mermaid – these are the unforgettable characters in "Suzhou River," a Chinese film whose simple surface belies greater mysteries.

There's a fourth character, too, but her identity's one of those aforementioned mysteries. In this dreamlike movie, she may or may not be the girl who plunged in the river. But more on this later.

Set in contemporary Shanghai by the Suzhou River, which is filled with domestic sewage and industrial waste, the story's about an unseen, unidentified videographer who spends more time gazing from his river-view window than working. While waiting for the video jobs that never come, he watches passersby on boats or crossing the bridge and invents stories about them.

He has become obsessed lately with Meimei (Zhou Xun), a showgirl in a long blond wig who swims around in an aquarium dressed as a mermaid as part of her act. A beautiful woman who bounces between childlike sweetness and unspoken sadness, she becomes his girlfriend, only to exit his life as rapidly as she entered.

The narrator's plight makes him deeply empathetic toward one of his story subjects: a taciturn motorbike courier named Mardar (Jia Hongsheng) who has suffered similar heartbreak.

Mardar is a busy messenger who works hard and asks no questions. One of his clients, an alcohol smuggler, hires him regularly to take the dealer's 16-year-old daughter, Moudan, (also played by Zhou Xun), to her aunt's whenever the dealer has a rendezvous with his many women.

When one crosstown ride leads to many, Mardar and Moudan grow fond of each other. The fondness becomes love. But their romance is destroyed when another client of Mardar's forces the courier to participate in a kidnapping plot involving Moudan as a hostage. When she discovers what's going on, Moudan is so angry at Mardar, she leaps into the foul river. Emotionally devastated by Moudan's act, Mardar also finds himself accused of killing her. After some years in prison, he returns to Shanghai, determined to find her.

Which is where the showgirl-mermaid comes in. Mardar, who meets Meimei, is haunted by Moudan's declaration that she would return as a mermaid. Could the showgirl and his lost girlfriend be one and the same?

Written and directed by Lou Ye, a member of the "6th generation" of Chinese filmmakers, the movie dances nimbly between two stylistic opposites: neorealism, a quasi-documentary technique that employs straightforward, unembellished stories and nonprofessional actors; and poetic surrealism, in which life is seen as a waking dream. Although the movie, shot mostly from the narrator's camera's point of view, seems realistic, we're never 100 percent sure about the veracity of anything: Who is the narrator? And how reliable are his assertions? Is the courier merely a figment of the narrator's imagination? An alter ego? And the ultimate question, as to the identity of both women, remains very much up to us. That's what makes this movie (recently selected for the New Directors/New Films series in New York) so memorable: Although it speaks powerfully and simply, it's also a wonderful enigma. The "meaning" of "Suzhou River" comes from our perceptions, as much as it does the narrator or Lou Ye.

"Suzhou River" (Unrated, 83 minutes) – Contains minor sexual content and some violence. In Mandarin with subtitles.


Copyright 2001 The Washington Post Company

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