"CAMERAS DON'T LIE," says the hardened narrator of this gritty Chinese reworking of Hitchcock's Vertigo. That's a suspect assertion, considering he's a videographer who never appears in the picture. Who is he, and what kind of story is he telling? He shows us things from a jittery, subjective perspective, although River deliberately leaves us guessing about whether the story is really his to tell. Does it rightfully belong to Mardar (Jia Hongsheng), a handsome motorcycle courier who's River's more conventional—but also flawed—protagonist? In this remarkable, haunting movie about the riddles and ambiguities of identity, uncertainty is the whole point.
written and directed by Lou Ye with Zhou Xun and Jia Hongsheng runs March 2-8 at Varsity
Mardar is a watchful denizen of Shanghai's underworld, most of which lies along the dirty river that gives Lou Ye's film its name and circuitous shape. Framed by the anonymous narrator's viewfinder, we learn in flashback how Mardar chauffeurs, then falls in love with, a gangster's teenage daughter, Moudan (Zhou Xun). Simple enough, except that Mardar's criminal ties lead him into a plot that he soon regrets. When Moudan disappears, the question "Would you look for me forever?" plagues him for years to come.
Would he, or would that be the mission of a ghost-haunted madman? When does devotion become dementia? Like James Stewart in Hitchcock's 1958 depiction of doomed, destructive love, our hero becomes fixated on a doppelg䮧er, Meimei (also the narrator's girlfriend), who performs as a mermaid in a seedy bar. She's no angel, no vessel of purity, yet Mardar becomes obsessed with her, confides in her, hoping to expiate his guilt about Moudan. Nonetheless, having betrayed one trust in the past—disastrously—who would believe him now?
"IF YOU WATCH it long enough, the river will show you everything," declares our sneaky narrator (who admits that he may be making up the story as he goes along). Indeed, the fetid waters eventually disgorge a sight that might conclude a simpler tale. But River insists on complicating things further, as Mardar becomes a kind of double or authorial stand-in for the videographer. They're both besotted with what appears to be the same woman, who also appears to die twice in the same movie. As we root for Mardar, the skeptical Meimei—if that's who she is—is likewise moved by his romantic quest. She wants to reward it, even while professing her loyalty to the videographer. Will love flower again? Lou won't provide her, Mardar, or the audience with such easy consolation. Moviegoers will enjoy the protean Zhou's expert performance(s), however.
Part of River's bracing vigor and surprise also comes from its squalid setting. Shanghai is dilapidated, decaying, and polluted; nevertheless, Lou finds ways to cast golden light across its filthy river. The city's both drab and colorful, with steam, smoke, neon, and pounding rain warping our perspective. Lou's camera wanders and darts like the early work of Wong Kar-wai, dizzying and disorienting until—like Mardar—you're not sure whether to believe what you're seeing.
That irreconcilable gulf between appearance and reality, longing and having, makes River more than a mere homage to Vertigo. (Jorg Lemberg's fine score deliberately refers to Bernard Herrmann's original music.) As with Hitchcock's thwarted, twice-told love story, there's a terrible foreboding to Mardar's search, and we fear for his finally getting what he wants. Still, the brisk, lean River hasn't a trace of sentimentalism, despite its sadness and loss; it's like a film noir updated to the new China, with cell phones, pagers, and cigarettes in every hand. Accordingly, there's a constant, fascinating tension between the hard-boiled storyteller and the love story he tells. One of the best pictures of the new year, River reminds us how love's a mystery and everybody's a detective.