Eternal Return

Home to the last great popular cinema of the 20th century, Hong Kong has proved a great source of inspiration. Syncretic by nature, Hong Kong movies expanded the imagination of Asian filmmakers, no less than that of the American audiences for whom the East Asian metropolis (from Seoul to Singapore) has come to be the image of globalization, if not the economic frontier of the future.

The latest in East-West fusion, Lou Ye's wildly atmospheric, cleverly low-budget Suzhou River is no Blade Runner or Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon—but this adroit, concise, and poetic city-symphony is almost too fashionable for its own good. Awash with new-wave flotsam and jetsam, Suzhou River (which had its premiere in last spring's "New Directors/New Films") is a movie of seductive surfaces—mainly as reflected in the queasy glamour of the polluted canal that winds through the heart of Shanghai.

In the absence of anything by Wong Kar-wai, this may be the most stylish movie currently playing lower Manhattan. Lou, a 35-year-old Shanghai native who has worked mainly in Chinese TV (and made his share of music videos), locates a plot lifted largely from Vertigo and a noirish first-person narration supplied by an unseen, itinerant videographer in a moody urban landscape whose sumptuous industrial dereliction would be the envy of film aesthetes from Williamsburg to Edinburgh or even Azerbaijan.

Tank girl: Zhou Xun in Suzhou River
photo: Strand Releasing
Tank girl: Zhou Xun in Suzhou River


Suzhou River
Written and directed by Lou Ye
A Strand release
Film Forum
Through November 21

Written and directed by Sabu
A Shooting Gallery release
Loews State
Opens November 10

Charlie's Angels
Directed by McG
Written by Ryan Rowe, Ed Solomon, and John August
A Columbia release

Less intractable than the season's other first-rate Chinese movie, Jia Zhangke's cool and detached Platform, Suzhou River revels in déjà vu. Voyeur that he is, the movie's nameless camera-I naturally falls in love with the exhibitionist Meimei (Zhou Xun), a young woman who performs in a long blond wig and a floodlit tank, impersonating a mermaid in the dank recesses of the Happy Tavern. Tapes documenting Meimei, already a vanished object, at work and play segue into the legend of Mardar—the handsome motorcycle messenger who has experienced a far more dramatic tale of love and loss.

Charged with the care of the schoolgirl Moudan, daughter of a wealthy lowlife, Mardar made the mistake of becoming emotionally involved with her. The alert viewer will quickly note that Moudan is also played by Zhou Xun, albeit as an annoyingly pert gamine. Mardar, who is not particularly bright, allows himself to be recruited by some underworld pals in a plot to kidnap Moudan and hold her for ransom. Shocked by his betrayal (as well as the apparently paltry sum that her captors are demanding), the girl seizes an opportunity to run away and hurl herself into the Suzhou, clutching—yes—a blond mermaid doll. Mardar is sent to jail and, on his return to Shanghai some years later, begins searching the urban maze for Moudan—inevitably, as well as literally, bumping into her grown-up doppelgänger at the bar of the Happy Tavern.

Suzhou River's narrative is more than a bit cornball and not overly convincing—which is to say the movie's conviction is to be found in its formal values. (The plot doesn't really kick in until quite late, once Mardar—even more obsessive than the narrator—meets the enigmatic Meimei and begins haunting her dressing room: "Am I the girl you are looking for?" she asks in a question rich with multiple meanings.) Shot with a jostling, nervous camera, Suzhou River looks great—the showy jump cuts and off-kilter close-ups belie an extremely well edited, even supple, piece of work.

Lou is confident even in his influences: The movie's aggressive style, its tawdry neon pink-and-green cocktail-lounge color schemes and heavy rain, are all suggestive of Wong Kar-wai. The score, by German composer Jorg Lemberg, deliberately echoes the Wagnerian rhapsody Bernard Herrmann wrote for Vertigo. But the lessons Lou learned from Wong and his allusions to Hitchcock are far less important than his vision of cavernous dives illuminated by naked lightbulbs or the flux of the industrial smokestacks and derelict buildings that line the canal's rubbish-strewn embankments.

This is not a film that plumbs the depths, unless it is to dredge those of the filmmaker's own melancholy. After Meimei breaks up with the camera, the Happy Tavern (that neighborhood house of fiction) shuts down. "Suddenly it was as if none of this had happened," the narrator muses. Further complications—restless spirits, additional doubles, sudden disappearances—send him drifting downstream with his camcorder, following the grimy garbage scows in search of another story.

Lou has transformed Shanghai into a personal phantom zone. Named for an urban stream of consciousness, Suzhou River is a ghost story that's shot as though it were a documentary—and a documentary that feels like a dream.

A less distinguished example of Asian pop, Non-Stop is a strenuously crazy little action comedy that has been hustling around the international film festival circuit for the past few years under the title Dangan Runner. No less than Suzhou River, this first feature by the Japanese actor turned filmmaker Sabu celebrates a local neighborhood in the global village.

An inept dishwasher who keeps a gun in his refrigerator is on his way to rob a bank when he decides at the last minute to shoplift a gauze mask. This ill-advised maneuver compels him to take a wild shot at the convenience store clerk, who, after the hapless robber has dropped his gun, picks it up and begins pursuing him through the back alleys of Tokyo. These two soon collide with a cowardly yakuza to whom the clerk (a dope-addled musician) owes money, and he too joins the parade.

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