A clever story which is both simple and deep, rooted in the real world yet semi-hallucinatory to boot, "Suzhou River" starts life with the always unseen narrator - a central figure in the plot - who is a video cameraman with a habit of spray painting his phone number on bridges and street corners. He gets to make the most meagre living from filming birthday parties and weddings and so, with lots of time on his hands, he fantasises about the folk sailing down or walking by the eponymous river. He only becomes animated when seeing, thinking about, or filming his pretty young girlfriend who performs a club act decked out as a mermaid. One day a motorcycle courier, just released from jail for kidnapping his own girlfriend, talks to the cameraman about her. Can both girlfriends be one and the same? Or are there two identical girls running around Shanghai?
This is a strong but gentle film about identity, neediness, and desire, as well as our ability to re-invent the world to suit ourselves. Shanghai-born director Lou Ye, who has only his graduation film and a television series behind him, has originality and ability in equal measure, and he balances his film between lengthy tracking shots of the river - to create dream-like imagery - and hand held camera work to stress the busy streets of Shanghai and the daily life of the courier. Through individuals who don't say very much at all (if the courier comes out with three words he's being verbose), the director also sustains the ambiguity of character and situation. Lou Ye has created a polished tale of mystery and imagination, leaving it to himself to supply the mystery, and us the imagination.