Dir: Lou Ye. China-Germany. 1999. 83 mins.
Prod cos: The Coproduction Office, Essential Film, Dream Factory. Int'l sales: The Coproduction Office (+49 30 3277 7879). Prods: Nai An, Philippe Bober. Scr: Lou Ye. DoP: Wang Yu. Prod des: Li Zhuoyi. Ed: Karl Riegl. Music: Jorg Lemberg. Main cast: Zhou Xun, Jia Hongsheng.
Not exactly accomplished but sufficiently enticing for a Rotterdam Tiger Award, Lou Ye's second feature handles a complex plot with a fair amount of expertise and finds time to bow to several classics including Hitchcock's Vertigo and Robert Montgomery's Lady In The Lake. The Shanghai-set melodrama makes the best of the city's underbelly locations, while spinning a doomed love story whose unravelling is foretold from the very beginning. But in the final analysis, the film's loose ends aren't tied in a satisfactory manner.
Mardar (Jia Hongsheng), a young messenger running errands on his bike, is romantically entangled with a client's teenage daughter, Moudan (Zhou Xun), whom he delivers to an aunt every time her father has sexual relaxation lined up at home. Mardar agrees to participate in a plot to kidnap the girl, in return for a fat ransom from her father, but she discovers the plan and escapes by jumping off a bridge into the Suzhou River. Mardar is sent to jail, and on his release years later, believes he has found Moudan in the person of another girl, Meimei (also played by Zhou). Meimei denies the connection, but the voice-over narration is from the point-of-view of an unseen cameraman who claims Meimei was his girlfriend until she disappeared one day without leaving a trace.
The spirit of Vertigo is evident throughout, not only in Mardar's obsession to turn Meimei into his former girlfriend, but also in the choice of colour patterns and the mention of someone falling off a roof. The subjective narrator refers not only to Montgomery's vintage picture but also more recent experiments such as Robert Jan Westdijk's 1996 Zusje (Little Sister). Lou Ye adds a socio-political tone, by insisting on depicting the Westernisation of Chinese life, but beyond all the disparate narrative touches, Suzhou is still a touching love story at heart, that might have blossomed better had it been less burdened by cinematic conceits.