PRINT November 2000


Suzhou River

I have it on good authority that mermaids don’t exist in China, yet Lou Ye captured one from the depths of Shanghai’s unclean waterways In his second film, Suzhou River, which made its US debut at New Directors/New Films in March and opens this month at New York’s Film Forum. The mermaid in Lou's film is a slippery apparition, the coy ghost of a suicide who swims half-naked in a seedy nightclub floor-show, and her presence intimates that this gritty film, like the man-made river it's named after, is rife with impurities. Suzhou River is a story of love and betrayal, a posthuman noir told by a down-and-out videographer, and the entire narrative is seen through the lens of his camera. When I asked Lou how he had arrived at this first-person technique, the thirty-five-year-old director responded, “I tried to put myself in the story. But in any case, when you tell another person's tale you always run the risk of being implicated in it.”

A graduate of the Beijing Film Academy, Lou belongs to the so-called sixth generation of Chinese filmmakers. Their predecessors, the celebrated fifth generation, which Includes such luminaries as Chen Kaige (Farewell My Concubine) and Zhang Yimou (Raise the Red Lantern), came of age during the Cultural Revolution and set their epics in China's past or in the rural countryside, emphasizing traditional Chinese customs, costumes, and culture. Directors like Lou began making films after the Tiananmen Square massacre, during a period of unprecedented—and disruptive—economic liberalization, and they often refer to themselves as the 386 MHz generation (referencing the then-fastest computer processor; three for over thirty, eight for educated in the '80s, and six for born in the '60s). Their movies are impudent and urban, and their influences range from Dziga Vertov and Jean-Luc Godard to Alfred Hitchcock and MTV, all of which are visible in Lou's film. “I don't need to make a costume drama to prove that this is a Chinese film,” Lou says.

Suzhou River has not yet been approved for public viewing in China, but Lou is critical of those who invoke the specter of censorship as a way of marketing Chinese cinema in the West. On the other hand, he says, “The censors are a bit more nervous than necessary. The time when one movie could shut down the government is long gone.” Lou won acclaim abroad for his 1994 thesis film, Weekend Lover, but since then he's been working for state television, where he's cranked out everything from soaps, commercials, and music videos to a “ non-narrative expressionistic psychomystery,” Don't Be Young, which aired on Chinese television in 1995. Lou's experience in TV may have influenced his decision to shoot Suzhou River entirely in digital video.

Both the “I” and the “eye” in Lou's film are the video camera, an instrument that appears to record truth but in fact simulates reality. As our identification comes to rest with the camera, Lou exposes the ways that the technology of memory displaces human remembering, making every girl in the film the girl we would follow to the ends of the earth. “The camera,” Walter Benjamin wrote, “introduces us to unconscious optics,” and in Suzhou River we follow the polluted flow of the camera's desires, a digital stream in which even true love is a projection.

Lawrence Chua is the author of Gold by the Inch (Grove Press, 1998).