Poetry in motion. A poem may be the perfect comparison to Lou Ye’s incredible film Suzhou River, the story of a story about a man gone wrong and the love he lost. With a plot and perspective that could render this film incomprehensible, Ye masterfully and stunningly constructs a film of poetic motion, magical lyricism, and daunting images.
A videographer living in Shanghai falls in love with a mysterious go-go dancer named Meimei who works as a mermaid in the fish tank of the Happy Bar. The introduction of this storyline is similar to the first stanza of this figurative poem. It is a queer and beautiful sonnet that transcends the mere description of the narrator’s love for Meimei to actually bringing the audience into the experience of his great love.
The stanza is followed by a couplet of sorts which transits the audience from the story of the videographer to the story of Mardar. It is a fitting transition because, as the audience sees, the story of Mardar becomes intertwined with the story of the videographer and his dear Meimei. This couplet is composed of a sad and poetic overture by Meimei who asks if her lover would travel the world looking for her if she disappeared like Mardar did for Moudan. He replies yes, she is convinced that he is lying, and the audience waits for more.
Soon the story within the story of Mardar and Moudan is told by the videographer. Mardar is a motor bike courier who falls in love with the daughter of a wealthy businessman. However, tragedy soon strikes this unlikely pair of lovers when Mardar kidnaps her and holds her for ransom. Poor, pig-tail wearing Moudan is heartbroken.
The climax of this tragic love sonnet comes as Moudan, who has just evaded her captor, jumps from a bridge over the Suzhou River after telling Mardar that she will come back for him as a mermaid. Her body is never found, and after serving several years in prison, Mardar embarks on a long search for his lost love. He soon happens upon the Happy Bar with its bewitching sea enchantress go-go dancer. And of course, Meimei is a dead ringer (no pun intended) for the tragic Moudan.
It then becomes obvious to the audience why the videographer is telling this story; Mardar has stolen his girlfriend and he’s not a happy camper. In fact, the selfishness of the narrator is perfectly communicated through perhaps the most brilliant feature of the film: the shot perspective. Somewhat shockingly, Suzhou River is completely shot from the unnamed videographer’s perspective. When he looks into the eyes of his beloved Meimei, so does the audience. When he finds the bodies of two lovers on the banks of the Suzhou, so does the viewer.
The film, wholly composed of eye-line match shots, departs from the rather overdone theme of voyeurism to experiment with the theme of virtual reality. This virtuality is enhanced by the fact that the audience cannot keep itself from sympathizing with the videographer, but his childish egocentricism does not permit the audience to trust him or admire him. To dislike the narrator would be to dislike oneself as the audience seems to take on the role of the main character, seeing his story as if it were their own. It’s brilliant.
Not only is this modern, urban fairy tale brilliant in its composition, content, and imagery, the film theory behind it is overwhelming. This film departs from the normalized ideas of film to question exactly what film can do and mean to the audience. Instead of merely commenting on the role of the audience in cinema, as a voyeur, Suzhou River robs the viewer of its gaze and thrusts them into the picture before them.
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