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Suzhou River (Blu-Ray Review)

3 min read

“Cameras don't lie,” says the narrator of Lou Ye's 2000 film Suzhou River, signalling that for the rest of the movie they will do exactly that. As we float down the titular river in the film's opening, we're made all too aware of the subjective nature of the camera, handheld and jittery, capturing the surrounding Shanghai neighbourhood in glances or in stares. What we're seeing on screen is the point of view of a man with a camera — a professional videographer, in fact, who might as well be a stand-in for the director himself.

Our invisible narrator tells us about his girlfriend, Meimei, who by night steps into a mermaid tail and swims around the oversized fish tank of a seedy bar. Meimei is prone to disappearance for days at a time, and waiting for her one day he relates — or perhaps just makes up — the story of another man who spends his life looking for a woman he's lost. Mardar (Jia Hongsheng) is a motorbike courier hired to drive around a shady businessman's daughter, Moudan. The pair fall in love, which makes it all the more bizarre when Mardar gets involved in a botched attempt to kidnap Moudan for ransom; the latter promptly vanishes. Some time later, Mardar develops an obsession with a woman who looks exactly like Moudan: the narrator's girlfriend, Meimei.

Moudan and Meimei are both played by Zhou Xun, just one aspect of the film suggestive of Hitchcock's Vertigo (Jörg Lemberg's soundtrack quotes from Hermann's iconic score). To be honest, the story itself is little more than a series of noirish clichés, nothing to get too excited about. It's how that story's told that makes Suzhou River so engrossing. There's a voyeuristic quality to the camerawork that recalls another Hitchcock film, Rear Window, and as with that film there's a fine line between immersion and implication. The narration, too, feels compromised by its intense subjectivity; it's peppered with distractions, hesitations, doubt. Even when we jump to the supposedly more objective third-person perspective, the sense remains that the fairy tale we're watching might not be the real story, and certainly isn't the whole story.

In fact, as the title indicates, the real story might be the urban spaces these characters inhabit. Suzhou River was made during a period of economic reform and rapid transformation, not that you'd know it from the dilapidated waterfront depicted in the film. Far from the postcard images of majestically lit skyscrapers associated with the city at the turn of the millennium, Lou's Shanghai is one of industrial ruins, of polluted waterways and barely-there buildings. It's been noted that the film's style echoes the restless chic of Wong Kar-wai's work from period — especially Chungking Express and Fallen Angels — but it's far grubbier than that, shot on Super 16 stock with a palette informed by the murky greys of the river itself, which look gorgeous on the new restoration.

Radiance's disc features a new interview with the reliably well-informed Tony Rayns, who discusses teaching Lou, independent filmmaking in China in the period and the tragic story of the film's star, Jia Hongsheng. (Intriguingly, he wagers that Lou Ye in all likelihood didn't have Vertigo on his mind when making the film — a fact that seems especially odd given he also notes that Lou was the only of his students to admire Chris Marker's Sans Soleil.) There's also a short 2001 video work, In Shanghai, again set in the city's working class neighbourhoods and with a voiceover. At first it seems like this will be a more straightforward extension of Suzhou River's documentary ambitions to capture the “real” Shanghai in the margins of the city. But it's not long before the lines between truth and fiction become decidedly fuzzy — but remember, “Cameras don't lie.”

Special Features

  • 4K restoration of the film from the original negative
  • 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio
  • Newly filmed interview with critic and programmer Tony Rayns (2024, 33 mins)
  • In Shanghai – a short film documentary portrait by Lou of his home city (2001, 16 mins)
  • Original trailer
  • Optional English subtitles
  • Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Time Tomorrow
  • Limited edition booklet featuring new writing by Josh Slater-Williams, Tony Rayns, a newly translated archival interview with Lou Ye and producer Philippe Bober
  • Limited edition of 3000 copies, presented in full-height Scanavo packaging with removable OBI strip leaving packaging free of certificates and markings

Suzhou River is out now on Blu-ray from