19 August 2002 | jandesimpson
A dazzling film for the millennium
It is possible to chart the history of post World War II cinema as a series of national waves each peaking in different decades, for instance Italy in the '40's, Japan in the '50's, France in the '60's and '70's and China and Taiwan in the '90's. A case has been made out for Iran in the '90's but examples I have seen, however fine, have seemed to me to be rather small in scale when compared with the rich offerings from the far East. China entered the millennium with a tremendous bang with Ye Lou's brilliant "Suzhou River", the impact of which has left me reeling. Although I had become accustomed to the uniform excellence of the work of Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige and their contemporaries, nothing had quite prepared me for the dazzling narrative brilliance of this new work. Although Chinese cinema is often innovative in subject matter, the finest examples such as "Raise the Red Lantern" and "Temptress Moon" tend to be fairly straightforward in their sense of narrative flow. "Suzhou River" however, as far as I am aware, has no precedent in its fascinatingly oblique approach to storytelling, a quality it shares with the Canadian, Robert LePage's "Le Confessional". The two films have another feature in common, both being inspired by Hitchcock. Although "Hitchcockian" is a loose generic term used to describe films that employ the Master's approach to suspense, both "Le Confessional" and "Suzhou River" go one step further in concentrating on a a single Hitchcock work for their inspiration, in the case of the former, "I Confess" and in the latter, "Vertigo". But at this point similarity ends. "Le Confessional" is very much an imaginative meditation on "I Confess". Some scenes deal with the making of the film and subtly contrast the original situation with a Quebec family facing a similar dilemma of conscience and its consequences a generation forward in time. The Chinese film is very different insofar as "Vertigo" is never mentioned. It takes a "Vertigo"-like situation and proceeds to tease the audience with outcomes that are subtly different. Stylistically it bears no similarity as it employs a frenetic hand-held camera technique that would have been alien to Hitchcock's obsession with studied visual balance. However there is a wonderful technical bonus that Hitchcock would undoubtedly have admired, where one of the characters -the director probably - remains unseen throughout but uses the camera as his eyes. The device is not new - it was used by Robert Montgomery in "Lady in the Lake" - but what was there something of a gimmick is here subsumed into the narrative in a way that is deeply satisfying. The most direct reference to "Vertigo" is reserved for Jorg Lemberg's score with its sighing string phrases - pure Bernard Herrmann pastiche. "Suzhou River" is one of those very rare events, a film I immediately had to see again. Although works such as the Belgian "La Promesse" and the Japanese "After Life" have far deeper resonances of meaning, few films have excited me so much in recent years from the point of view of sheer technical bravura.