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Sine Aqua Non: Zun Zhou takes a dive in 'Suzhou River.'

Sea Change

Shanghai is the scene for doomed romance in 'Suzhou River'

By Richard von Busack

THE SCREEN IS BLACK, and we hear: She: "If I leave you some day, would you look for me?" He: "Yes." She: "Would you look for me forever?" He: "Yes." She: "Your whole life?" He: "Yes." She: (long beat) "You're lying." Thus, even before we open in Shanghai, it's clear that we're really in Wong Kar-Wei (Chungking Express) country. Suzhou River's director, Ye Lou, has the Kar-Wei licks: the skipping around, the heavy, even fulsome narration about lost love, the imago-girl who disappears and turns up later wearing a wig, claiming not to be the same woman we were watching in the first half of the film. Artfully done and yet full of frustrating, forced enigma, this kind of movie is like playing hide and seek with children who cheat.

Suzhou River seems like yet another movie about the prettiness of neon in the rain, padded with scenes of actress Zun Zhou in her underwear. She plays a nightclub mermaid who swims in costume in a small tank the size of the ones that contain live catfish at Chinese seafood restaurants. Our narrator, basically a talking camera, meets her and falls for her. Later, he encounters the motorcycle-messenger Mardar (Hongshen Jia), who once knew and lost an innocent girl named Moudan.

After some circumstances, an angry Moudan threw herself off a bridge into the waters of the Suzhou River, promising to come back from the dead as a mermaid. Mardar goes to jail for a few years. You've heard it a million times: in China, you're responsible for the life you save from suicide; apparently, you're legally responsible for the ones that succeed in killing themselves, too. When Mardar returns from jail and finds the supposedly dead girl alive and swimming, he confronts this "Meimei," who disavows all knowledge of the old Moudan. Suzhou River takes some of its cues from Vertigo, and Jorg Lembeck's soundtrack even sounds like a bastardized version of Bernard Herrmann's Vertigo love theme, "Valse d'Amour." The visuals, the acting and the music make Vertigo's highly unlikely plot work--the plot itself is not a classic, and the same is true here.

Ye Lou has a somber ruined city to tour. The heavy, ancient-looking buildings of the famous Bund do look like crumbling castles, and the river is a squalid sight--you wouldn't drown a dog in it. Just as with Kar-Wei's scenes that look so rapturous in still photos and so uncertain and mistimed on screen, Ye Lou's handheld camera and excessive jump cuts wear me out. And Meimei/Moudan isn't mesmerizing. Zun, miscast, is a half-grown sprite with a petulant, comical face. The questions Meimei poses at the beginning aren't asked by a woman who came back from the dead. They're questions posed by a woman who looks like a little girl playing at romance in her mother's lipstick and eyeshadow.

Suzhou River (Unrated; 83 min.), directed and written by Ye Lou, photographed by Yu Wang and starring Hongshen Jia and Zun Zhou, opens Friday at the Camera One in San Jose.

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From the December 14-20, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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