Directed and written by Lou Ye
With Zhou Xun, Jia Hongsheng, Hua Zhongkai, Yao Anlian, and Nai An.
By Jonathan Rosenbaum
Suzhou River, a first feature playing this week at Facets Multimedia Center, is an affecting, romantic, and fascinating mood piece from China. It’s been getting a bit of flak from critics who call it a rip-off of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, but I don’t think that’s an accurate description. The plot of Vertigo is clearly a main source of writer-director Lou Ye’s inspiration, and his score contains periodic allusions to Bernard Herrmann’s brand of romantic longing. But there are clear differences in the characters, settings, and milieus.
Vertigo gave us James Stewart as a retired cop in sleek San Francisco falling for an upper-crust beauty (Kim Novak) he’s been hired to tail, who falls mysteriously to her death; he then finds her resurrected as a shop girl (Kim Novak again), whom he tries to transform into the woman he loved. Suzhou River, set alongside a large dirty river in Shanghai, is initially about a young, nameless videographer–the narrator of the story–who becomes involved with Meimei (Zhou Xun), a go-go dancer who swims underwater dressed as a mermaid for the amusement of customers in a sleazy tavern. Then the videographer tells us the story of Mardar (Jia Hongsheng), a motorcycle courier who does odd jobs for gangsters; he’s fallen in love with a woman named Moudan (Zhou Xun again), who looks just like Meimei and who jumps into the river in the middle of a quarrel with him and disappears. Mardar is arrested soon afterward, and when he emerges from prison he comes across Meimei, whom he’s convinced is Moudan in disguise. In this version of the story, it turns out that they aren’t the same person.
It’s increasingly apparent that Hollywood is the main supplier of master narratives to national cinemas around the globe–with a few interesting exceptions, such as India, which still has an autonomous film industry. Other countries–including mainland China, Taiwan, and Iran–have been inundated only recently with commercial American pictures and consequently have been able to develop their own traditions independently. But this doesn’t mean that Hollywood or would-be Hollywood movies aren’t the models for many films being made today in those countries. I recently spent a few days at the Rotterdam film festival and walked out after only a few minutes of a feature from mainland China that was the same kind of sleazy, violent, and thoroughly routine American-style thriller other Asian countries have been grinding out for years. I assumed the festival was showing it only because it had the novelty of coming from mainland China, but it’s depressing that this kind of boilerplate crap can now be found even in that country.
Yet there’s another category of Chinese cinema that draws on Hollywood sources only to make something different out of them, and Suzhou River is a fascinating example. It’s crucial that this movie’s denouement is radically different from Vertigo’s, making it much less of a rip-off than any of Brian De Palma’s dutiful Hitchcock tributes (which drew on Herrmann’s scores even more directly–and crudely–by getting Herrmann himself to imitate his own Hitchcock scores).
A few days after I left Rotterdam I went to the Fajr film festival in Tehran–my first trip to Iran–where I was a member of the international jury. One of the films I saw was an American-style thriller by the highly popular and prestigious Iranian filmmaker Bahram Beizai that had the unfortunate English title of Killing Rabids (when Deborah Young recently reviewed it in Variety she sensibly retitled it Killing Mad Dogs). It’s just the sort of Iranian movie that never gets shown in the U.S., partly because its Hollywood influences could be viewed as a strike against it–it doesn’t have the purported exoticism of most Iranian art films, yet it doesn’t quite live up to the slickness of a classic Hollywood genre film–and partly because its allusions to local government corruption are hard to pick up if you’re not Iranian. Furthermore, its heroine with guts of steel (played by Beizai’s wife, Mozhde Shamsai, who won my jury’s prize for best actor) stares down the misogynist villains at every opportunity–a type that would have had more commercial cachet in this country 15 years ago but now seems slightly passe.
Most movies seen in Tehran nowadays are lousy unsubtitled, pirated videos of brand-new American features–chic commodities among young viewers who can’t even follow the dialogue. Many of these viewers appear to dislike most Iranian films and are convinced that Westerners like them mainly because they show Iranians as poor people, our preferred image of that country. (I usually respond to such arguments by saying that if Iranian movies are too much about poor people, American movies are often too much about rich people–and if Iranians accept them as realistic they’re being fooled as much as we are.)
So the freshness we tend to find in Iranian cinema, with its relative freedom from Hollywood cliches, is presumably what the locals tend to like least about it. Perhaps as a consequence, some Iranian filmmakers seem to be avoiding certain national accoutrements; even Abbas Kiarostami’s remarkable new documentary feature, ABC Africa (which I saw in Tehran in rough cut), is almost entirely in English, until a conversation in Farsi between Kiarostami and his assistant crops up near the end, as if to remind us that this is an Iranian movie. (The film’s subject is grim–the million and a half Ugandan children orphaned by AIDS–but the treatment, which focuses on some of these kids singing and dancing, is often jubilant, making me wonder if Kiarostami unconsciously appropriated some elements from Hollywood musicals.)
Suzhou River and Vertigo are both about imitation and compulsive, obsessive repetition, but Suzhou River makes this a more self-conscious, even theoretical project. I’d argue that it succeeds more as a postmodernist allegory than as a story one can accept on its own terms–though it certainly tantalizes, whether or not one finds it believable, even as a fairy tale.
It’s also important to note that Vertigo is only one of Suzhou River’s sources. Lou Ye’s film also draws from Hollywood film noir, using a voice-over narration to recount the story in flashback while the narrator is determinedly kept offscreen, the camera taking his place–which is probably derived from Robert Montgomery’s gimmicky, noirish Raymond Chandler adaptation Lady in the Lake (1946). An even more pertinent influence is Wong Kar-wai, who draws on Hollywood noir and neonoir himself and whose romanticism and volatile handheld camera work and jump cuts have become major influences in Chinese art movies–he’s perhaps as pervasive an influence as Quentin Tarantino was a few years ago in the States (and still is in a few Asian movies).
It’s also worth noting that the mermaid figure is another Western hand-me-down, without any apparent Chinese counterparts. But Lou Ye puts a global spin on this notion: “Mermaids don’t exist in China; the whole idea is a Western import, like Coca-Cola and McDonald’s–everything Fifth Generation filmmakers refused to admit as Chinese….But how can you draw this line? As a child, I can remember my parents telling me Andersen’s ‘The Little Mermaid.’ And when did my parents first hear it? It’s impossible to say. This, I think, is a very important difference with filmmakers of my generation. We’re not interested in being cultural immigration officials saying, this is Chinese, this is not Chinese.”
In other words, like Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark, Suzhou River might be regarded in certain ways as an ersatz American film. But if so, the sounds and images it’s working from belong to other countries as much as they do to us–maybe more to other countries if they do more with them. What other countries do with those sounds and images often isn’t what the U.S. does with them. So rather than calling such pictures failed Hollywood products, one might call them successful global ventures that use only as much of Hollywood as they need to transmit their own ideas and feelings. After all, Hollywood movies such as The Matrix feed just as much off Hong Kong, and we don’t generally call them Asian wannabes because of it.
As a Chinese-German-Dutch-Japanese-French production, Suzhou River might appear to be all over the map, but these days many movies are–that’s what a significant category of global filmmaking is all about. As Lou Ye’s statement suggests, determining what is or isn’t Chinese–or German, or Dutch, or Japanese, or French, or American–at this point may not be as easy as it seems. And if we Americans can get used to the fact that we’re all occupying the same planet–consuming many of the same goods and dreaming many of the same dreams–“us” and “them” may no longer have the same meaning.