In Suzhou River (2000) by Director Lou Ye, an enigmatic videographer drifts down the titular river in a gloomy Shanghai. From behind the camera, he documents the lives of everyday people who work on the river. Work crews move supplies downstream. Old industries are in a state of disrepair or deconstruction. Rusted fishing boats and utility vessels line the banks, moored in a stifling, melancholic atmosphere. One can find all sorts of tales on these waters.

The videographer tells us: “There’s a century’s worth of stories here and rubbish, which makes it the filthiest river.” The shots are fleeting, taking on a handheld-style from the perspective of the videographer. Our narrator reveals little about himself — all we perceive of him are his hands and cigarette puffs curling across the lens.

In the day, this meta-auteur picks up odd-jobs around the city, shooting anything you want for the right price. Though he warns us that you may not like what you see, because his camera never lies. His precarious, touch-and-go occupation fetches him work within Shanghai’s underbelly. His latest gig, shooting promos for a nautical-themed nightclub, the Happy Tavern, brings him upon an old mystery lurking on the river.

His steady girlfriend, Meimei, stands out in her aqua satinesque dress and red leather jacket. At night, she transforms into a mermaid, working at the Happy Tavern as the bar’s main event. Despite being madly in love, the videographer and Meimei know little about each other. 

Meimei encounters a man named Mardar, who claims she is his lost lover, Moudan, from another life. The videographer realizes there might be more to Meimei’s past she let on.

But not all is as it seems; are Meimei and Moudan really the same person?

Did Meimei/Moudan suffer a bout of amnesia?

What dark secrets could be she hiding?

Or is Mardar facing an encounter with supernatural exacting cold karma for his seedy past?

Despite Meimei telling Mardar off many times, he can’t let Moudan go.

The videographer becomes obsessed with Mardar’s unbelievable tale and speculates his origins and motivations. He shows us, albeit from his perspective, Mardar’s mischronicles. He admits that he’s sharing his own interpolation about Mardar, putting his credibility into question. All the while, the mystery of Moudan and Meimei hypnotizes both men as their lives crash into each other and draws the ire of the river’s local, petty criminal underworld.

Suzhou River captures a low mood during the middling years of Shanghai’s experience of reform and opening up initiated in the late 20th century. It taps into the current of dissatisfaction among urban Chinese artists or the period, expressing widespread doubts in the future of the nation amid booming economic prospects and symptoms of uneven development.

Lou’s composition blends the forms of a slice-of-life documentary and a suspenseful neo-noir mystery bubbling beneath the surface. He casts us off into cold, loveless depths with the videographer ostensibly at the helm. The handy-cam style can be dizzying at times, but it is not overwhelming. Although we see things from his perspective, he is unable to steer this story into his control. It’s a captivating play on a narrator trying to escape his own symbolic death and blends mesmerizing, voyeuristic visuals oftentimes threading scornful nihilism and gentle romanticism. 

Suzhou River is an important piece endemic to a period in Shanghai’s history that deserves wider examination. Since the film’s debut, the Suzhou River has been transformed, renovated with picturesque boulevards and attractive parks. It is no longer the sludge-logged channel of then. The film’s dejected and grungy tone stands in sharp contrast to contemporary Shanghai, which is sailing forward much more confident in itself and its future.

Suzhou River will be playing at the Northwest Film Forum September 27 – October 1.

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