2000 was a watershed year in Chinese-language cinema. The year of milestones like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and In the Mood for Love and Yi yi alongside lesser-known but equally important films like Jia Zhangke’s Platform, and Jiang Wen’s Devils on the Doorstep, Johnnie To’s Needing You… and Fruit Chan’s Durian Durian. It was also the year of Lou Ye’s second feature, Suzhou River, a beguiling amalgam of Hitchcock and Wong Kar-wai, New Wave indie aesthetics and post-modern narrative trickery. It begins with images of Shanghai captured from a boat floating along the eponymous river, our narrator, referred to only as The Videographer, telling us about his hobby of filming everything he sees. He tells us about the woman he loves, Meimei, who dresses like a mermaid and swims at the Happy Tavern and is played by Zhou Xun. She tells him about a man named Mardar who loved a woman named Moudan so much he searched for her for years. During one of Meimei’s many absences, The Videographer begins to assemble the story of Mardar and Moudan (also played by Zhou Xun), at first he seems to be assembling it out of his own footage and imagination, but gradually it comes to resemble a conventional film. The story quickly changes from a simple tale of love into a petty crime saga. Then it changes back to a love story, where it intersects uneasily with the story, the life, of Meimei and The Videographer themselves.
The Videographer’s life is told in the first person, like Dark Passage or The Lady in the Lake (or now, twenty years after it was shot, resembling countless video games), and that subjective point of view lingers into the story he tells, such that even when we see apparently objective images of Mardar and Moudan, the feeling of subjectivity, of construction, of fabrication remains. Just as the narrative leaps beyond his control, from a thing imagined to a reality he and his girlfriend come to interact with, so does our relation to the images, twisting in and out of subjectivity like a Möbius strip, we’re never sure what is “real” and what is “story”. The result is an overpowering mood of longing and regret and passion, like Fallen Angels mixed with Vertigo but so distanced by the narrative game-playing that extracting anything more meaningful is impossible. Everything is feeling, but nothing feels real. Meimei tells The Videographer about Mardar and says that “everyone should have a love story like that.” And so, during one of her many absences, he makes one up. He tells himself the story not in order to live, but simply to pass the time when life should be happening but movies are instead.