Middle Kingdom Come

Down by the banks of Shanghai's river, tales of the heart float to the surface

Chinese cinema has long been at the forefront of modern moviemaking, but widespread recognition of this fact has been a long time coming, at least in the United States. Although enthusiasm for Hong Kong-style kung fu movies dates to Bruce Lee in the Seventies, such fervor generally has been derided critically and ignored popularly -- until recently. Now that the great slow-witted dinosaur of American public awareness has slowly turned its tiny head toward Chinese movies, suddenly you can't escape them. The Chinese seem to be everywhere: Jackie Chan, Jet Li, and Chow Yun Fat headline American as well as Chinese fare. Ang Lee breaks foreign-language box-office records with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (written by a decidedly American writer, James Shamus, but never mind), picking up a string of Oscar nominations in the process. And Wong Kar-wai's In the Mood for Love garners praise at film festivals worldwide.

Much of this attention and praise is well deserved. Chinese filmmakers offer imaginative, vigorous movies with solid acting and engaging story lines. As the Chinese -- mainlanders, Taiwanese, and overseas -- confront great cultural and economic changes, their film communities have risen to the challenge of depicting worlds and characters in transformation. Like European cinema in the post-World War II era, Chinese filmmakers are grabbing attention because of their urgency. The very obstacles they face -- limited resources, cultural upheaval, and repressive social and political forces -- offer them narrative opportunities that American filmmakers, typically more obsessed with getting movies made rather than trying to tell the stories, rarely encounter.

A case in point is Suzhou River, the second feature from director Lou Ye. It's a tale of obsessive romantic love in the unlikeliest of places: the grimy docks and riverfront bars of modern Shanghai. The film opens with a wild boat ride down the Suzhou, a filthy waterway that flows through and defines the surging industrial heartland. The story is narrated by an unseen videographer whose voice-over narrative accompanies the dark journey. The camera's point of view is his own. We see only what he does: glimpses of lonely passersby on a bridge, barges slouching past, heavy with cargo. The videographer describes his life, scrabbling a dull living filming birthday parties, weddings, and the like. Then one day he encounters a beautiful bargirl, Mei Mei, who performs as a mermaid, swimming in a huge tank for the patrons. The videographer becomes obsessed with her, and when they begin an affair, he films her constantly. But her frequent unexplained absences trouble him deeply.

At this point the videographer encounters the reason for Mei Mei's disappearances: Mardar, a despondent motorcycle courier who has recently met the mermaid. He tells his own love story of being hired to chauffeur a young girl, Moudan, who is as naive and bubbly as Mardar is dour and laconic. As the pair spends time together, hurtling through the streets on the courier's bike, they begin a romance. But Mardar has serious misgivings, and soon we discover why: He has been hired to kidnap Moudan and holds her captive in a derelict building. Moudan, realizing Mardar has betrayed her, escapes and flings herself off a bridge into the river. After serving time in jail, Mardar returns to Shanghai to search for Moudan, realizing too late how much he loved her. He comes upon Mei Mei, whom he thinks looks exactly like Moudan. Is Mei Mei who he thinks she is? She denies knowing him, but as he explains his obsessive love for Moudan, Mei Mei can't resist spending more and more time with him. All the while the equally obsessed videographer seethes with jealousy, and what first appears to be a simple tale told truthfully turns into a darker, more complex affair of deceit and confusion. The videographer, purportedly just recording real-life events, becomes a fabricator, and an increasingly malevolent one at that.

This story of love, loss, and uncertain identity makes for a fascinating film, one that has been likened to everything from Hitchcock's Vertigo to Truffaut's Jules et Jim. But despite its hyperrealistic, streetwise setting, its gangsters and Hitchcockian elements, Suzhou River's storyline feels like a modern spin on some ancient fairy tale.

The film's frequent use of the subjective camera, especially in the early part of the story, is an unsettling and perhaps off-putting effect. Viewers of the marketing phenomenon The Blair Witch Project can understand the queasy feeling a teetering hand-held point of view can engender. Because of this aspect, the film is exceptionally energetic, careening through the neon-lit streets like Mardar's motorcycle.

Jia Hongsheng as Mardar offers a chiseled, stoic gangster hero who seems right out of French Nouvelle Vague cinema. He's the Chinese equivalent of Alain Delon in Le Samourai or Jean-Paul Belmondo in Breathless, and he's got that conflicted romantic tone down cold. But the real delight of this film is Zhou Xun, who plays both Mei Mei and Moudan. Sure, doubling the two roles that are supposed to be doubles is a no-brainer, but the remarkable aspect here is that Zhou is so good, so specific in her two roles that she really is different in each one. Mardar's confusion is ours: Is this the same girl or not?

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