Mainland Chinese cinema nudged its way into Western art houses in the late ’80s with the panoramic history lessons of the so-called Fifth Generation, children of the Cultural Revolution led by Zhang Yimou, Tian Zhuangzhuang, and Chen Kaige. But it wasn’t until the mid ’90s that the rumblings of a truly independent film scene were discernible in the People’s Republic, with the emergence of low-budget, urban-set movies, often indebted to the West and Hong Kong in both style and content (popular culture, sexual frankness, youthful restlessness and rage). The Sixth Generation, a more disparate group than its predecessor, includes Zhang Yuan (whose East Palace, West Palace is considered China’s first gay film), Wang Xiaoshuai (best known here for the pseudonymously released Frozen, about a suicidal performance artist), and Zia Jhangke (whose masterful, still-undistributed ’80s youth saga, Platform, was the highlight of the recent New York Film Festival). But no Sixth Generation film has so far exhibited as eloquent and effortless a command of the post-Wong Kar-wai pop idiom as Lou Ye’s second feature, Suzhou River, a boldly allusive, perspective-shifting tale of obsessive love along a bustling Shanghai waterway.
The 35-year-old Lou says he feels dubious about the very notion of a Sixth Generation. “I have no qualms with it, but it’s a concept coined by Western critics. There are a lot of differences between us. But since our so-called generation is seven years apart from the so-called fifth, and many things happened in that period, we’re bound to have different viewpoints.” Like many of his peers, Lou studied at the Beijing Film Academy (he graduated in 1989, the year of Tiananmen) and, more than the students a generation before him, was “exposed equally to Chinese and Western film history—Fellini, Antonioni, and Cassavetes had a big impact on my film education.” And presumably Hitchcock as well, given Suzhou River‘s unmistakable echoes of Vertigo (the circuitous plot pivots on a mysterious bewigged doppelgänger). Lou, however, claims he was never consciously inspired. “I haven’t seen Vertigo since film school. The mistaken identity in Suzhou River was something I never really wanted to resolve—it took me a while to decide if I would have one actress playing two parts or two actresses playing the same part.”
Lou, who worked with a first-time cinematographer, Wang Yu, and a tiny budget, says the jagged, loose-limbed style of the film was largely a function of economics: “We decided on handheld cameras because we didn’t have much time to set up.” Suzhou River, which originated as part of a 10-film TV project called Super City that Lou produced, took shape in the editing process. “In the original script, there was much less emphasis on the story of the narrator [the unseen videographer] and it was less subjective.” The first cut of the film was a TV version consisting of two 37-minute episodes; it was only after Berlin-based producer Philippe Bober stepped in with finishing funds that work began on a feature-length edit that collapsed both stories into one voyeuristic meta-narrative.
“Voyeurism and hiding behind a camera are not the same,” says Lou. “When you’re making a movie, you’re impacting the world that you’re filming, which in turn impacts you. It can be a dangerous position.” While Suzhou River doesn’t stint on giddy melancholy, Lou comes off as a curiously pragmatic romantic. “For me, romance is a very idiotic thing,” he says. “But from the point of view of the film’s narrator, it’s also very necessary, because the romance evokes real emotion. In real life, there’s little romance of any real quality—you need to evoke it, just like when you’re watching or making a film.”