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Wednesday, May 9, 2001

Am I the girl you're looking for?

Suzhou River

Rating: * * * *Japanese title: Futari no Ningyo Director: Lou Ye Running time: 115 minutes Language:Cantonese, with Japanese subtitlesNow showing

"If I leave you someday, would you look for me forever? Your whole life?"

Zhou Xun in "Suzhou River"

When the unnamed narrator of "Suzhou River" is asked this by his lover, Mei-mei; he mumbles yes, but it's hardly convincing. "You're lying," snaps Mei-mei. But put yourself in the poor guy's shoes: Could you answer this one sincerely? Would a more heartfelt "yes" betray passion or obsession? "Suzhou River" -- a highly atmospheric neo-noir by Chinese director Lou Ye, set in modern-day Shanghai -- offers us both possibilities.

The narrator's great fear: "Sometimes she'd get sad and I wouldn't know why. She'd disappear and then turn up again as if nothing had happened. Every time she closed the door behind her my heart stopped." A video cameraman, he films her every moment, as if somehow knowing that in the end it's all he'll be left with. Or maybe he's distancing himself so that it will hurt less when she goes.

Mei-mei's note left on a table in her deserted apartment: "Find me if you love me." A test of true love, or a calculated move to drive a man insane? Mei-mei (Zhou Xun) works at a seedy bar, donning a mermaid outfit and sloshing about seductively in a giant tank of topaz water. Is she, like the mythic siren she dresses up as every night, a beauty who brings only implacable desire and doom? Or is she -- like so many supposed femme fatales -- only elusive because her man is so fixated on her beauty that he doesn't see what's really there?

That's certainly true for Mardar (Jia Hongsheng), a lunky ex-con who starts stalking Mei-mei, haunting her dressing room at the club with a strange tale to tell. He believes that Mei-mei is actually his long-lost love Moudan (also played by Zhou), who killed herself by jumping into the Suzhou River after he betrayed her by helping some local gangsters hold her for ransom. Local rumor has it that Moudan has appeared as a "mermaid" in the Suzhou, which makes Mei-mei's appearance in her pool a mind-blower for Mardar.

Mei-mei certainly doesn't act like Moudan -- she's tough, sexy and cool, while Moudan was girlish and pouty -- but she looks exactly like her, enough so to freak out poor Mardar. Mei-mei at first shuns Mardar, seeing him as another obsessed fan, but once she hears his story, she becomes fascinated with his devotion to finding Moudan. As she warms to Mardar, her videographer boyfriend becomes noticeably jealous. This triangle doesn't work out well for anyone in the end, though the mystery is less important than how Mardar's belief in his story changes all their lives.

Stylistically, "Suzhou River" -- which took top prize at last year's Tokyo FilmEx festival -- could be described as Wong Kar-wai meets Hitchcock: Caressed by the swooning strings of Jorg Lemberg's score (deliberately invoking Bernard Herman's work on "Vertigo"), it's shot in an impressionistic style that frames moments of mysterious beauty amid an environment of gray urban decay. The story's ebb and flow of chance encounters is pure Wong (never mind the internal musings of a love-weary narrator), while the obsessive pursuit of a dead girl's look-alike is lifted directly from Hitch.

Doing the Kim Novak brunette/blonde switch here is Zhou Xun, an up-and-coming young actress who brings two completely different sets of mannerisms and attitudes for Mei-mei and Moudan. (She's so convincing at it that you'll feel like the Moudan roles were filmed while Zhou was still in high school.) The look of utter despair she conjures up as Moudan when she realizes that Mardar has betrayed her just makes time stop. As Mei-mei, she envelops herself in the aura of the femme fatale: Bathed in flashing neon lights, flashing a press-on tattoo on her left thigh, she asks Mardar pointedly, "Am I the girl you're looking for?" It's a question heavy with meaning.

"Suzhou River" -- like "Vertigo" and "Lost Highway" and a whole slew of films in between -- is about obsession, in particular male obsession for unattainable beauty, bound up somewhere deeply in the psyche with the urge toward self-abasement, even self-destruction. Mardar, allowing his past to dictate his future, follows his karma to a watery end. But the videographer -- and the viewer -- are left with a choice, to follow Mei-mei's siren song or not. In an age of instant gratification and easy access to everything, what Mei-mei proves is that disappearance -- the art of being unseen -- is the ultimate seduction.

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