Water Everywhere 

Drifting Down the Tired Suzhou River

All great cities have great rivers that snake through them like great statements. Most often the rivers are filthy, ringed with sin and vice, lazy with corruption. As such, their role is to make fluid the transitions between desire and loss, between ambition and dissipation. They are great places to find love, get drunk, lose oneself, and kill people, all of which happen in the new Chinese film Suzhou River.

The film opens with a stylish elegy to the river itself, the camera gliding along its sluggish, hazel waters and leering up at the flesh of the city. Dying buildings crowd the shore, riverboats elbow past one another, and everywhere life riots about us: a dog barks; a family throws garbage; pedestrians stare down from steel bridges. And always in the background hover the spires and needles of Pudong, Shanghai's own delirious Oz, reaching madly for the sky in flagrant disregard of the lives squandered in its shadow. It is quite a performance.

Unfortunately, it is also the best performance in the film. The fetid plot--a simple-minded meld of Vertigo with Wong Kar-wai's Chungking Express, telling the tired tale of star-crossed lovers and their doubles--cannot possibly equal so brilliant a setting. As the soundtrack shamelessly apes Bernard Hermann, and the fated lovers lurch toward their tragic, labored separation halfway through the film, our thoughts turn inevitably to Hitchcock's superior rendition of the same themes. And then the cinematography, its colors and sense of space lifted wholly from Chris Doyle, begins to remind you of those films' superior rendering of urban space and the intersection of random lives. As the plot builds and builds, it becomes all too clear that we're not in as capable a pair of hands.

Still, it is almost impossible to tire of looking at that river. In fact, the film does perform one great service: After seeing it, you will surely find yourself scurrying down to the Broadway Bridge to recognize--formally, this time--the rusted, battered beauty of our own waterway, the Willamette River.

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