Suzhou River (Ye Lou, 2000)

by Smart

Rivers have always played an important role in Chinese cinema. They are symbolic of many, quite often contradictory, things. In Lou’s 2000 film the river appears at the beginning, at the end, and sporadically throughout. It represents contamination and scarcity, but it also functions as a central location for characters to meet and interact. It is surrounded by a harsh, dehumanizing modern city. Our protagonist lives in this city, but we never see him. We see where he lives, and we occasionally see his hands, but never him. We even see the people he interacts with and observes. He narrates for us a story that takes place around him, the city, and the Suzhou river. The story he tells concerns a motorcycle courier and two women. Even as the story intertwines with our invisible narrator, we are never certain of the truthfulness of the events. Perhaps they were simply made up so that our narrator would have a story to tell.

Hand-held cinematography dominates the aesthetic. It is shaky, constantly stylized and frequently takes on an active first person perspective. The dramatic shifts in exposure and dangerously shallow focus give a feeling of frenzy and hyperrealism. Hitchcock’s Vertigo is evoked repeatedly through homage, such as in the use of colours, the voyeuristic tendencies and even the narrative structure itself. One woman seemingly takes on the identity of two, begging us to wonder what it means to be an individual. Is it anything more than how we are perceived by others? Events fold back on themselves and repeat in mysterious, engrossing, slightly different ways. As a sixth generation Chinese director, Ye Lou is strongly romantic and personal. He is searching for intimacy in a place where such a luxury is dampened by the overbearing toxic nature of contemporary society. We are sutured into Suzhou River as we experience with all our senses the aching power that can be generated from an atmospheric, painfully doomed, never-ending love story.