10 January 2001 | the red duchess
Sublime hymn to Hitchcock and storytelling.
Imagine 'Vertigo' remade by Chris Marker in the style of Wong Kar-Wai. And yeah, it nearly is THAT good. Most people have noted the allusions to Hitchcock's film, from the obsessively searching protagonist and certain plot similarities to the echoes of that most achingly romantic of film scores and the overall mood of romantic fatalism. But it is a 'Vertigo' filtered through the Marker of 'La Jetee' and 'Sans Soleil', one that moves it away from its Hollywood or generic context and admires its metaphysical reach, sophisticated narratology and formal complexity.
Although 'Suzhou River''s plot seems banal enough, with its mixing of burgeoning love story and crime genre, the treatment of it transcends the mundane. This is achieved in a number of ways - in the sickly, Hitchcockian colour, making fantastic the grimly everyday; the restless, yet elegant camerawork, seemingly wired to the overflowing emotional lives of the characters; the choppy, elliptical editing, that alternately creates a more urgent sense of reality, of how life is lived by people whose sensibility is alive and alert, and less realistic, by drawing attention to the film's formalism, the idea that someone is pulling strings, ordering this 'reality'.
It is the shadowy narrator that is at the heart of the film's mystery, not the missing woman Mardar seeks. It is his narration that is most reminiscent of Marker - in its mix of observation and speculation he turns the everyday into science fiction as he compresses, dilates, plays with distinctions of time and space, even of genre: the opening sequence could quite plausibly belong to a documentary. As with Marker, via Benjamin, the narrator is trying to create a history, an alternative history to the official one, one that sifts through rubbish, rumours and ephemera, reads and connects random signs.
At first we assume the story is his, the narrative of his romance with Meimei; that the story of Mardar and Moudan is a digression, almost a move into urban legend. Eventually, we realise that this latter is the body of the film, and that the narrator has marginalised himself from his own narrative, let it slip away from him, just as Moudan does Mardar, Meimei herself does the narrator, Maddie/Judy does Scottie in 'Vertigo'. When it finally comes back to him in an audacious narrative loop, his privileging has been displaced, and he has become the villain, the hood who has the new hero beaten up.
It is here we recognise that 'Suzhou' is one of the great river films, like 'Boudu saved from drowning' or 'L'Atalante'; not only in its blurring of opposites - land and water, truth and story, documentary and fiction, male and female, human and mythic creature, history and memory, life and death, fate and free will - or in the idea that there are stories, histories, destinies that are subsumed, literally under water, unseen by the 'real' world, but unconsciously shaping it; but also in its narrative logic, its relentless circularity, its tributaries branching off from the main narrative river and finally flooding it. The fact that the narrator is a stand-in for both the director AND the viewer, through his disembodied point of view, and who nevertheless expresses himself through an unseen body (sex, violence etc.) only complicates his inexplicable motivations.
Like Wong Kar-Wai, this is a rare, total cinema experience, where acting, form, style, mood, colour, music, location, plot all cohere to overwhelm both heart and mind; a film that shows that the urge to tell stories is linked to death (in that they begin and end), sex (in that they lead progressively to climax and release) and a control (in that they order and remake experience) that combines both, just as Hitchcock revealed in 'Vertigo' over 40 years ago through the figure of Scottie Ferguson.