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Only The River Flows – Cannes 2023 (Film Review)

4 min read

In the year 1991, an issue of World Literature Today published a compelling essay on the work of renowned Chinese author Yu Hua. Written by scholar Y. H. Zhao, the piece entitled “Yu Hua: Fiction as subversion” commented on the meta-textual nature of Yu's literary oeuvre. The essay provided an integral limelight to his acclaimed novel Mistakes by the River; a prime example of his invigorating implementation of parody. Yu's writing with Mistakes by the River is purely dependent on the subversions of his genre-conventions — turning a positivism-ingrained detective fable into an incoherent malady. We return to the present day, where the infamous literary-discovery has finally found its international home on the silver-screen. Returning back to the director's chair after his promising Ripples of Life, 's latest feature attempts at adapting the incomprehensible thematic apex of Yu's complex piece.

Wei, a director best known for his metatextual ruminations on the state of cinema itself, implements a new layer of subtext into his seemingly sturdy detective adaptation. The physical presence of cinema (or this time around, the embodiment of an abandoned picture-palace) later evolves into the procedural safe haven for the police-indoctrinated protagonist. Wei plays with the conventions and social expectations of the local law enforcement; where Only The River Flows primarily communicates the dwindling narrative through the unreliable point-of-view of Chief Ma Zhe. 

Still Courtesy –

From the get-go, Wei is invested with the malpractice at the scene of the crime. Missing links, undefined motives, and other miscellaneous head-scratchers induce the viewer into a state of procedural hysteria. Due to the lack of commonality in the persecuting statements, the very nature of the film's case scrapes against the traditional conventions of a Hollywood crime flick. Only The River Flows is an apathetic anti-mystery — detailing its serial-killer beats with patient long-takes, a heavy usage of diegetic sound, and a strong affinity for Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata. The film's celluloid cinematography provides a washed-out pastel palette; colours which delightfully compliment the frosty scapes of a liminal town. 

We also witness the ugliness and mundanity of the character's routine first-hand — stuck in a never-ending cycle of self-congratulatory practices. In a nightmarish sequence that radically switches filmmaking modes into a visceral dreamscape,  Wei places the viewer into Ma Zhe's headspace. Vicariously, we are thwarted by his repressed fears and existential suspicions.  Everyone's a suspect in Wei's detective tale. The unreliability of our protagonist's psychosis provides the integral investment with the film's familiar narrative. 

The populace of Peishui City are more concerned with the incarceration of the presumed murderer, rather than exploring the motives and deconstructed violence which permeate the perplexing crime-scene. The biting sociological critique behind Only The River Flows is dependent on the expectations of the law enforcement. Due to the pressing urgency of the confounding case, the film's commentary augments Ma Zhe's deteriorating mental health. Admittedly, Wei's provocations wear thin. There's a staggering absence of perspective from the townspeople involved in the central conflict of Only The River Flows. The thematic linkage between the renegade cinema-space, the figurative projections of the public, and the enlightened images which surround the manic protagonist all lack clarity. The parodic nature of the case itself features little emotional gravitation. The provocations are concealed for the pleasures of meandering subversion. 

Where Only The River Flows succeeds is with its slight, but effective depictions of the commonwealth. Forbidden love-affairs and suicide attempts are coincided with the supporting cast's repressed desires. The questionable suspects are under-siege of a far more dangerous case — a fear of losing their integrity within their domesticated social-circles. They uphold their picturesque image dictated by their modern Chinese society. Only the River Flows is a film about projected images; utilising the metaphor of a police-occupied cinema house as the ultimate semiotic-tool for complying with state-authority. The senseless killings are merely the investigative spark for the film's half-baked social commentary. 

Only The River Flows begins and ends with an adolescent gaze. In the vein of Mai Zetterling's The War Game, a group of children conduct a game of cops and robbers together. They frolic with their cosplay through an abandoned complex; rotting furniture and scrambled documents scattered across the floor. The film's final frames concludes with the stare of a newborn — Ma Zhe's wide-eyed infant confused by its surroundings. This is the birth, or alternatively the rebirth, of a new era. We begin with the innocence of youth, and conclude with the same confounding stare. Nothing has truly changed. The generational calamity continues. 

Before our first image, we are treated with the sounds of a muffled ultrasound. We hear a heart-beat; a pattern of delirious repetition. At the dawn of our first celluloid frame, Wei presents the viewer with an integral philosophical text. At the birth of a new monstrosity, the words of Albert Camus light up the screen. In awe, we reflect on these ambiguous words. The incomplete mystery found within Wei's puzzle is futile; a never-ending cycle of paradoxical roles and images trapped in a decaying city. 

“There's no understanding fate; therefore I choose to play the part of fate. I wear the foolish, unintelligible, face of a professional god.” – Albert Camus
Still Courtesy – MK2 Films
Only The River Flows premiered at this year's 76th Cannes Film Festival, as part of the Un Certain Regard competition.