Review of Suzhou River (苏州河, China, 2000), A Dream Factory production.
Reviewed by NYU Student Jacqueline Sia
Director: Lou Ye
Producers: Nai An and Philippe Bober
Music: Jorg Lemberg
Cinematographer: Wang Yu
Art Director: Li Zhuoyi
Screenwriters: Lou Ye
Editor: Karl Riedl
Running time: 83 MIN.
Cast: Zhou Xun (Moudan/Meimei), Jia Hongsheng (Mardar) and Yao Anlian, Nai An and Hua Zhongkai (Shanghai residents) (Mandarin dialogue)
Release in China: N/A
Shaoyi’s Rating: A- (Excellent)
Suzhou River follows the love story of Moudan and Mardar, and how it intertwines with the love story between the narrator and Mei-Mei. The film is all in the point of view of the narrator, who is also a videographer. The narrator is obviously an amateur at filmmaking, noted by the jerky camera movements and the content that he films. The narrator’s job is to film anyone anywhere and for however long his customers want to be filmed. Because of that, he becomes a voyeur, where every person caught on camera becomes a character in his film, or his life. The camera techniques of close-ups, long one-shot takes, and jerky camera movements that imitate a person’s eyes all add to the idea that the audience and the narrator are voyeurs upon other people’s lives. Though the love story between Mardar and Moudan appears to be a figment of the narrator’s imagination (because the narrator could not have been present when that happened), nevertheless it still follows elements of a voyeur until the main character changes from the anonymous narrator to Mardar.
The opening montage of Shanghai from the point of view of Suzhou River establishes the mood of voyeurism. The camera movements are jerky and move back and forth between the left and right banks of the river. There are close-ups and then medium shots all jumbled together, emphasizing certain characteristics of the city or the people on the river. Then the voice-over of the narrator helps in making the audience think that they are standing in the narrator’s place because one never sees the narrator’s face. His hands may stretch out before the camera, thus emphasizing that the point of view is from the person’s eyes.
The next scene where the videographer looks outside his window and tracks the different “stories” happening on the bridge also establishes the mood. The audience sees people working, couples fighting with each other, traveling on bikes and mopeds, and any daily activity that is both public and yet also private. The camera tracks them until it sees something else more interesting. There is a feeling of Hitchcock’s Rear Window, where from the point of the window (in the safety of one’s own room), the main character spies on everyone else’s lives. The scene also shows Shanghai as a gritty city rather than the magnificent images of the Bund and Pudong that audiences are usually used to. By showing the “real” Shanghai, Lou Ye also emphasizes the idea of voyeurism; after all, voyeurism tracks reality and does not dare gloss over the details in the world.
Another impactful scene that unsettles viewers as well as reminds the audience that they are in the point of view of the narrator is the part where the narrator and a boatman see Moudan as a mermaid, and the boatman looks directly at the camera in bewilderment. The boatman breaks the “fourth wall” that the camera usually creates by looking directly at the camera. While he acknowledges the audience staring back at him, he is also acknowledging the fact that he is looking at the narrator in the eye. At that moment, the audience becomes the narrator and stares right back at the boatman, and the situation becomes even more real and present for them.
Even when the narrator switches to the love story between Moudan and Mardar, Lou Ye retains some voyeuristic techniques. Mardar watches Mei-Mei undress and change into her mermaid costume at the bar, and the camera peeks through a small opening and remains still the entire time. It is one of the longer single-take shots in the film, moving only when Mardar’s eyes would move and track Mei-Mei. Another voyeuristic moment is when Moudan is trapped in the abandoned building and there is a long close-up of her face. Her expression changes from shock at the betrayal to utter sadness, where the camera breaks away only after her eyes become glassy from the tears. Voyeurs catch innocent people when they are most vulnerable, and this is an extremely private moment for Moudan. Nevertheless, the audience and the camera watch her and stay very close to her. Also when Moudan goes out on the balcony to relieve herself, Mardar stands close and watches her. The camera/audience also intrudes into this private moment by alternating close-ups between the two characters.
Lou Ye’s choice in having an anonymous narrator becoming a voyeur for the audience’s benefit adds the sense of uncertainty in the story. Because it is all from one perspective, no matter how realistic and omniscient the narrator seems to be, the story is still seen with a biased point of view. What the audience sees is what the voyeur wants to see, implying that the narrator (whom the audience does not know if he can trust) is showing a skewed perspective of Mei-Mei/Moudan and Mardar. The audience always understands the narrator’s point of view, thanks to voice-overs and the camera angle. However, the audience has to rely on the narrator being honest about what is being said and what is going on. The narrator has the power to skew the audience’s opinion with the voice-overs and the camera angle, and so he can become biased and prevent the audience from understanding the story from another perspective. And to take it a step further, the narrator is Lou Ye, so the director ultimately shapes the audience’s opinion and perspective, and he shapes the image of Shanghai that he wants portrayed to the audience. Controlling what one sees onscreen and manipulating one’s opinion in a certain way is what, in its most basic sense, film is all about, and that is what Lou Ye achieves successfully with Suzhou River.