Imagine Hitchcock's Vertigo as directed by Wong Kar Wai and you'll get a feeling of Suzhou River, a dreamy, infinitely romantic drama set in contemporary Shanghai that tackles nothing so much as the bottomless mysteries of love.
Our unseen narrator, a freelance videographer who wanders the city looking for work, taping weddings and such, tells us about his love for Meimei (Zhou Xun), a sexy city girl who performs as a mermaid in a seedy local bar. The first part of the film is boldly shot through the narrator's POV, with characters speaking directly into the camera (one of the only times this gimmick has ever worked), until he begins to spin the tale of a lonely motorcycle courier named Mardar (Jia Hongshen), who, a few years earlier, fell in love with innocent teenager Moudan (Zhou Xun again) but was forced to betray her – with tragic consequences.
The narrative shifts and shimmers so that we're no longer sure which story is real, or which woman is real, or if Moudan and Meimei are the same person, as Mardar returns to Shanghai in search of her, and complicates the lives of both Meimei and our still-unseen narrator in the process.
Suzhou River is tremendously exciting to watch, as it just feels so new – there's nothing like the discovery of fresh talent. Ye is a member of China's so-called "Sixth Generation" of filmmakers (the Fifth included such lauded directors as Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige), and although this is his debut, his maturity and sophistication in telling a story cinematically are obvious within the first five minutes.
Saturated colors, handheld camera, a beautifully broken narrative style, a lush, Bernard Herrmann-esque score, and a genuine belief in the severity of love make Suzhou River soar. It fortifies the argument that China is at the cutting edge of modern cinema. Although there was a slump for a few years (at least in terms of which Chinese films made it to Western shores), here's hoping that Suzhou River reopens the doors to one of the most fascinating film movements in the world.