Suzhou River

English Title: Suzhou River

Country of Origin: China

Studio: Essential Filmproduction

Director: Lou Ye

Producer(s): Nai An, Philippe Bober

Screenplay: Lou Ye

Cinematographer: Wang Yu

Art Director: Li Zhuoyi

Editor: Karl Riedl

Runtime: 83 minutes

Genre: Drama

Year: 2000

Volume: Chinese


An unnamed videographer takes a job shooting publicity footage of Meimei, a nightclub performer who swims around a water tank in a mermaid costume. Meimei and the videographer begin an affair that is often interrupted by her mysterious habit of disappearing without explanation. On returning, she always asks the videographer if he would search for her forever were she to vanish permanently; to illustrate her question, she tells the story of a motorbike courier who never stopped looking for his girlfriend when she went missing. The videographer then invents the full story of the courier, Mardar, and his lover Moudan, a schoolgirl with a wealthy, neglectful father. Mardar joins a scheme to kidnap Moudan, despite the love that has blossomed between them, and when Moudan angrily discovers how little ransom was demanded for her, she jumps into the Suzhou River and is never seen again. After years in prison, Mardar begins an endless search for Moudan, whose body was never found. Then he meets Meimei, who eerily resembles Moudan, and seduces her, infuriating the videographer. Mardar eventually finds the actual Moudan, but both of them soon drown in the river. Meimei then drops from sight again, asking the videographer to search for her forever.


In his opening voiceover, the videographer in Suzhou River says he does not believe in mermaids, thus raising and simultaneously rebuffing the mermaid motif that flows through the film. Mermaids are everywhere and nowhere in Lou Ye’s melancholy drama: we never actually see one, but the videographer talks about them, Meimei (played by Zhou Xun) masquerades as one, superstitious people think Moudan (also played by Zhou) becomes one when she jumps into the Suzhou River, and the river itself is a constant presence in the movie’s vividly pictured Shanghai, although its dirty water and heavy traffic evoke industrial blight more than mythic wonder.

The mermaid leitmotif symbolizes two types of metamorphosis that shape and propel Suzhou River. One is the seeming transformation of Moudan into Meimei, which seems eerily real until the actual Moudan finally surfaces near the end, working at a 24-hour convenience store where she peddles the brand of vodka that Mardar favours. The other, more sweeping kind of metamorphosis is the ongoing transmutation of the story itself. It enters the movie in the form of Meimei’s little tale about the courier and the schoolgirl, which then evolves in the imagination of the videographer, who finds himself unable to carry it beyond a certain point unless another character, the courier himself, takes up and continues the thread. The film thus pursues a highly self-reflexive course, with major elements being determined and developed by characters who play key parts in them.  

What rescues Suzhou River from drowning in the crosscurrents of its continually shifting story is the elegiac atmosphere with which Lou surrounds it, encouraging viewers to take the film not as a puzzle to be solved but rather a set of moods to be experienced and a set of spaces to be meandered through, much as the river runs through the districts and neighbourhoods of the sprawling city. Lou’s membership in the unsentimental Sixth Generation school makes the movie’s strength as an atmosphere piece even more impressive. His neon-lit Shanghai has the kind of spasmodic rhythm and disordered ambience found in Wang Xiaoshuai’s Beijing and Jia Zhangke’s Fenyang, for example; and using the videographer’s anecdotes and reflections to frame the story provides an added rationale for the restlessness of the cinematography and the first-person intensity of the movie’s tone, sometimes conveyed through subjective camerawork as the videographer shoots people and places around him. This sort of edgy spontaneity is a Sixth Generation trademark, and Lou deploys it without diluting the sense of tragic poetry that suffuses the film as well.

The poetic sensibility of Suzhou River is also fuelled by its many allusions to Alfred Hitchcock’s dreamlike Vertigo (1958), which likewise involves water, memories, a wandering protagonist, a vanishing woman, an ambiguous death, an uncertain identity, and voyages through urban scenes that are by turns hypnotic, nervous and elegiac. Jörg Lemberg’s music further establishes this connection, employing lush string melodies resembling Bernard Herrmann’s exquisite Vertigo score but merging them with a pumping techno-beat that captures the jittery anxiety of this very different city. Critics have also linked Suzhou River with Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love, made in the same year and similarly influenced by Hitchcock’s masterpiece. Suzhou River is ultimately a highly original work, however, and its most salient qualities owe little to other movies or directors. This includes its splendid acting, crowned by Zhou Xun’s double portrayal of teenaged Moudan and hard-bitten Meimei – an authentic marvel of screen performance, ideally crystallizing the film’s haunting obsession with metamorphosis, memory and loss. 

Author of this review: David Sterritt