“If one day I’d disappeared, would you look for me?”
“Yes, I would.”
“Would you look for me as madly as Mardar did?”
“Yes, I would.”
“Would you keep looking forever?”
This is the conversation at the beginning of Suzhou River (苏州河), between Meimei, a girl in cheap make-up and gaudy dresses, working at a dive bar, and her on-again, off-again boyfriend, a poor, unnamed videographer. He tells her the story of Mardar, a courier who buzzes on a motorcycle along Suzhou River, who was once in jail for some years because he kidnapped a young girl.
The story takes place in the gritty suburb of Shanghai in 1990s China. Abandoned warehouses and factories and chaotic slums huddle along the banks of Suzhou River, which transports tons of trash along with steamers and their cargo and avaricious owners to the fast-growing metropolis.
On the riverbank lived a teenage girl named Moudan, who had two pigtails and who liked to wear a red jacket. Her father got rich through smuggling, and he’d usually hire Mardar to take his daughter out whenever he brought a new mistress back home. Over time, Moudan grew attached to the man who ferried her back and forth on a shabby bike. They fell in love with each other and were happy for a while.
One day, Mardar picked Moudan up at her house, as usual; however, he brought her to a deserted warehouse and locked her in. She realized that her lover had schemed with crooks to extort ransom from her wealthy father. Forced to kidnap Moudan after they noticed his growing affection for the girl, Mardar wanted to send her back home, but she seized an opportunity to run away and jumped into the Suzhou River. Her body was never found, and Mardar was arrested. Upon his release from jail, he began looking for his old love, convinced she’d survived the waters.
When he met Meimei at the tawdry bar, he was convinced that she was actually Moudan. She thought him a lunatic, as he kept gibbering about his story; gradually, she was moved by his persistence and took him into her bed. Soon, Mardar found the real Moudan, and left the heartbroken Meimei with the videographer. At the end of the film, Mardar and Moudan, after drinking much alcohol, were found drowned in Suzhou River, their deaths never known as an accident or a suicide.
The director of the film, Lou Ye, one of the “Sixth Generation” Chinese filmmakers, chose the actress Zhou Xun to play the dual roles of Moudan and Meimei in Suzhou River. Her excellent performance won her the Best Actress Award in the 2000 Paris Film Festival, and though well-received abroad, Suzhou River was not publicly screened in China due to Lou being under a filmmaking ban by the Chinese government at the time.
A shot of Suzhou River from the film
In this tragic love story, Lou leads our sight away from the garish image of bustling, thriving Shanghai, and instead to the margins of society: crooks, prostitutes, smugglers, and laborers. The two main characters in the film, Mardar and Moudan, form a jarring contrast with other profit-seeking people in the scenes. Perhaps the discrepancy created by these two figures is what Lou pursues: true love has become rare in the society depicted in Suzhou River.
People don’t waste time looking for love; instead, they care more about money. Only Mardar and Moudan will stick to their lovers, and as a counterpart is the relationship between Meimei and the videographer. In the end, Meimei left her shabby apartment and a note for the videographer: “Come and look for me.” He, of course, didn’t follow, and confessed, “Compare to looking for Meimei, I would rather close my eyes and wait for the coming of my next lover…”
In many aspects, Mardar and Moudan are ordinary people, struggling for a better life along Suzhou River like everyone else. Mardar, who’d committed crime, could barely be called a “good” person: poor, anonymous, and abandoned, Mardar and Moudan are losers according to the materialistic standards of society. However, what made them stand out is the devotion of their relationship, a romance twinkling from the smelly, dark depths of Suzhou River.
Throughout the film, Lou created the microcosm of a cold and dystopic society more or less representative of 90s China. In such a world, love between Mardar and Moudan is instead rendered unrealistic and absurd, growing into a traumatic experience with only one ending. True love is vulnerable in such a world where the two lovers cannot be understood; only at the bottom of Suzhou River is their love able to gain its eternity.