Lou Ye’s breakthrough feature Suzhou River intertwines the destinies of two couples. Mardar (Jia Hongsheng) is a motorcycle courier and small-time criminal who becomes romantically involved with Moudan (Zhou Xun), the bored daughter of a wealthy businessman who he has been hired to ferry around town. Meanwhile, an anonymous videographer (Hua Zhongkai) is in a relationship with Meimei (also played by Zhou), who makes her living as a performer at The Happy Tavern, a dive bar where she performs as a mermaid in a giant tank. When Mardar loses Moudan as a result of a kidnapping scheme that goes tragically wrong, he believes he has found her again when encountering the identical Meimei. By filtering events through the perspective of the videographer – who is unseen aside from the occasional glimpse of his hands – Suzhou River takes a documentary approach to film noir conventions with alluring femme fatales, a kidnapping plot, desperate criminals, rainy nights, dimly lit rooms, and sleazy bars featuring prominently.
Suzhou River presents Shanghai as cityscape on the cusp of globalisation where the need to earn money takes precedence over traditional values. Personal histories are barely sketched or entirely absent. Each character is fixed in the present. They exist in a Westernised landscape that is making a sustained bid to reclaim its status as ‘the Paris of the East’ by establishing an international finance centre, cosmopolitan leisure attractions, and architectural modernity. Furthermore, this free market rush has given rise to economic marginalisation, which in turn led to the spread of low-level criminality. Lou’s representation of Shanghai at this time serves to update the manner in which the city was conveyed by the Chinese New Perceptionists of the 1930s, as discussed by Yingjin Zhang with regards to its juxtaposition with Beijing:
Whereas Beijing is represented as a place dominated by traditional rural values, Shanghai is configured as a site of modernity, where modern – which usually means Western – experience reaches every corner of the city.
An early sequence consists of footage of the titular river, shot from one of the many barges that travel on its polluted waters. The videographer’s camera pans and zooms around the surrounding environment, filming construction workers toiling away on the buildings alongside the river. This sequence calls attention to Lou’s documentary method, not only by the manner in which the footage is assembled, but also by the presence of workers, riverside residents, and strollers on the bridges who look directly into the videographer’s camera as he passes by, or even wave at it. The videographer’s narration positions the river as a place of history and tragedy that summarises Shanghai in terms of both legend and reality, while introducing its significance to the story that he is about to impart:
There’s a century worth of stories here and rubbish, which makes it the filthiest river. Many people live here making a living on the river. They spend their whole lives here. Look, you can see them. If you watch it long enough, the river will show you everything.
Suzhou River is rightly celebrated for this stunning opening, which was shot following the 1998 instigation of the Suzhou Creek Rehabilitation Project, an initiative intended to better manage water resources while improving living standards along the waterway. Glimpses of the new structures in the nearby Pudong district are captured, notably the looming Oriental Pearl Tower, with these symbols of modernisation being juxtaposed against the dirty water that represents Shanghai’s past. Yet the videographer is not particularly interested in the new development. He quickly pans away to focus on the grime of the river, consciously recording remaining evidence as its gradually vanishing past and establishing the urban context for the narrative that is about to unfold. Jörg Lemberg’s score incorporates clanging sounds that evoke construction, but also utilises ghostly echoes, suggesting that this waterway is haunted by past indiscretions. The audience is encouraged to look at the people who reside and work on the river, to see them as a living history.
The manner in which Suzhou River segues into a narrative concerning marginal urbanites such as Mardar and Meimei positions them as the modern equivalents of these boat people. They belong to a younger social under-class that exists on the streets rather than the waterway, but is equally likely to be overlooked in the overarching drive towards global status. The videographer has adopted a detached stance towards society, remaining distant even to Meimei. As with the traditional noir protagonist of the private detective, the videographer traverses various environments but is not fully tied to any of them due to the nature of his profession. Still, he never becomes a true gumshoe substitute because of his passivity. The videographer has become self-isolated, infatuated with the technological advances that enable him to sustain a modest lifestyle. He has become disconnected as a consequence of his preferred way of surveying this ever-shifting landscape and even conducts relationships in a voyeuristic manner that limits his capacity for intimacy.
While the videographer rents an apartment that overlooks the river, Meimei rents a houseboat, a temporary residence that will allow her to leave whenever she sees fit. Her alternative identity as a mermaid when performing at the Happy Tavern provides moments of escape from the pressures of urban life, but can also be seen as a trap. Filled with cigarette smoke and lit by gaudy lights that emphasise Meimie’s beauty yet incriminate those who come to stare at her floating figure, the Happy Tavern is a sub-par echo of the extravagant entertainment of the ‘Paris of the East’ with sexualised spectacle reduced to cheap thrills. Like the mythological figure of the mermaid that she embodies on a nightly basis, Meimei is faithful and strong-willed, yet also prone to bouts of sadness. Although aware of the artifice of her bar persona, Meimei still embraces some of its characteristics, enjoying being a figure of fantasy and putting a lot of care into the necessary make-up. However, her solemn facial expression when seen in dressing room before and after the show suggests a barely suppressed sadness with regards to her method of escaping reality through paid performance.
Mardar is a twentysomething courier who makes deliveries around Shanghai and spends his nights watching pirate VCDs. The motorcycle represents mobility, a degree of freedom within the constraints of the city and an opportunity for Mardar to connect with Shanghai, becoming at one with its developing economy. Bicycles or motorcycles often feature as a symbol of varying degrees of freedom or status in other Sixth Generation films. For instance, Jia Zhangke’s Unknown Pleasures (2002) begins with one main characters riding a motorcycle that he has borrowed from a friend, but the use of a sustained tracking shot leads to a sense of containment that is characteristic of its director’s take on society. By contrast, Mardar’s rides around Shanghai in Suzhou River are conveyed through numerous angles, edits, and fast pans. The motorcycle serves as a liberating force that catapults the previously directionless youth into the free market with space conflating when he travels at top speed. Still, his economic standing means that he must return to the warehouse district, regardless of where his work has taken him. His romance with Moudan briefly defies social-economic hierarchies, but is ultimately destroyed by class difference when Mardar is convinced to participate in a kidnapping scheme that will see Moudan held for ransom.In a heavily symbolic location choice, Mardar’s crew hold Moudan captive in a rotting warehouse near Suzhou Creek which is presumably marked for demolition.
After much searching and the obsessive pursuit of Moudan’s doppelganger Meimei, the reunion between these lovers proves to be brief. As they sit facing the sunset, Lou cuts to a shot from the behind Mardar and Moudan that reveals the Oriental Pearl Tower, rising from the district that was labelled the “Head of the Dragon” by Deng Xiaoping. The tower is a symbol of modernity and a statement of what Chinese society is to become in the reform era. As Kevin Lynch explains,
A landmark is yet stronger if visible over an extended range of time or distance, more useful if the direction of view can be distinguished. If identifiable from near and far, while moving rapidly or slowly, by night or day, it then becomes a stable anchor for the perception of the complex or shifting world.
This is one of the few scenes in Suzhou River where Lou firmly establishes a sense of spatial geography: the camerawork is steadier than in previous visits to the riverside, with the Oriental Pearl Tower, being more deliberately framed than in the opening sequence. If the opening sequence evokes Shanghai’s past, then this scene is all about how the present is hurtling towards the future with no regard for the accommodation of those on its social margins. Yet such heartbreaking tragedy only furthers Shanghai’s capacity for romantic narratives, as emphasised by the closing scene in which the videographer looks out at the river, waiting for the next story to come along.
 Yingjin Zhan, The City in Modern Chinese Literature & Film, Stanford University Press, 1996, p179.
 Kevin Lynch, The Image of the City, MIT Press, 1960, p101.
This piece has been cross-posted at the Medium blog of the DC Chinese Film Festival.
‘Riding the Waves’ — A DC Chinese Film Festival Retrospective of the New Wave Chinese Cinema of the 80’s and 90’s runs from September 21-24.