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.
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.
As this trio of losers run through the city (a sequence that must account for at least half the film), Sabu riffs on their respective subjectivity. In one quintessential urban encounter, all three successively fantasize about the same woman they dash past. Although the original reason for the pursuit is forgotten, this bongo-scored, endorphin-fueled, totally pointless chase culminates in a generic movie scenario: The trio barge into a yakuza universe, a convergence that convention dictates must litter the screen with corpses.
Japanese reviewers found Sabu’s debut to be impressively Tarantino-esque. Others suspect that Non-Stop, which was shown to great enthusiasm at the 1997 Berlin Film Festival, may have inspired the following year’s Run Lola Run. Non-Stop is some sort of high-concept contraption, but the bravado of its title is undermined by an exceedingly slow setup and the even more tediously static sequence that effectively terminates the movie well before its official running time.
The Karate Boogaloo of the 1970s lives: Charlie’s Angels, the first feature directed by the music-video ace known as McG is about as subtle as a boombox. But this amiably idiotic $90 million inflation of the haute-’70s TV show is immeasurably helped by Yuen Cheung-yan’s martial arts leap-kick-chop choreography. Thus, when they’re not wrapped in bikinis, wet suits, and towels (and sometimes when they are), Drew Barrymore, Cameron Diaz, and Lucy Liu complement their flirty butt-thrusts with a ferocious assortment of midair spins and ninja gyrations.
A small army of writers was reportedly required to produce this episodic televisual narrative in which the indestructible Angels, disguised variously as Middle Eastern belly dancers, Japanese hostesses, and even Bavarian barmaids, fight the good fight against “the end of privacy as we know it.” Not only does Charlie’s Angels take a courageous stand against corporate, computer-driven, Big Brother chicanery, it deserves an award from the Dairy Farmers of America: The cheesy disco action scenes are topped only by the movie’s ripe double entendres and continual cheesecake.
The lanky, grinning Diaz gets the most opportunity to exercise her considerable talent for physical comedy—it’s almost worth the price of admission to see her booty-shaking appearance on Soul Train. The movie is basically a girlfight, although Bill Murray, Crispin Glover, and Tim Curry are on hand to add to the clownshow antics. Even John Forsythe is exhumed to provide the voice of the godlike Charlie—although in the unavoidable sequel I hope to see his part taken by that other ’70s retread, Tim Meadows’s Ladies Man.