Quick Thoughts: Suzhou River (2000)
A courier entangled in crime falls for a mob boss’ daughter, only to lose her all too soon.
Suzhou River is a tremendous 6th generation Chinese film, one that, formally and narratively, embodies the concept of loneliness and failure perfectly. As we watch a narrator reminisce and exposit stories about romantic deception and a romantic search or quest, we are then immersed in an abstract crime-thriller somewhat akin to Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Whilst there is much that could be said about this film, its individual core asks a single question: why am I lost?
In asking this question, this film explores both nihilism and loneliness, leaning heavily on the crutch of the femme fatal. In this narrative, the femme fatal is a mermaid, a siren, that calls a lonely drifter into a shipwreck. However, whilst this is how a love interest is manifested symbolically in this narrative, the fundamental femme fatal that expresses most about this film is certainly Pandora.
Pandora was given, somewhat maliciously, to the Titan Epimetheus (brother to Prometheus, who stole fire from the gods for humanity) by Zeus as a ‘gift’, and with her she brought a box that she was never to open. Epimetheus, meaning hindsight, was given the key to this box and, despite Pandora’s curiosity, he refused to open it. However, one night Pandora steals the key, opens the box and releases chaos into the world; disease, hatred, crime, worry, etc. Failing to put all of this chaos back into the box, Pandora slams the lid shut, but, in doing so, she traps the one respite that Zeus placed into the box: hope.
This story is a brilliant one, though, I really don’t need to say this as its stand against time speaks for itself. Nonetheless, whilst Pandora’s Box implies a Jungian or Freudian idea of confronting the shadow, the unconscious and the darkness within us – after all, if Pandora opens the box from which chaos first came, she will find the tools to confront chaos – this story is a deep tragedy. This is because of the hubris of the male that attracts such trouble; Pandora, a femme fatal not too distant from the dames that mob bosses would send after nihilistic detectives or drifters in film noirs such as Out Of The Past and The Big Sleep. The tragedy embedded into this narrative is then found in this initial hopelessness of the relative fool (relative to his brother, Prometheus) that was Epimetheus. Moreover, greater tragedy is found in Pandora, who is a mere naive tool for a malicious god.
We find all of these ideas represented in Suzhou River with romance being lost, a nihilistic, haphazard protagonists yearning for memory whilst projecting semi-romantic abstractions onto the world and, ultimately, drifting slowly down a river, rather pointlessly; our narrator is Epimetheus, his love interest is Pandora, and Zeus is the abstract concept of industrialised society and fate. And so, unlike the sailors in Homer’s Odyssey who must ignore the sirens to continue their journey, our unknown narrator of this film has no direction; he simply floats down the Suzhou River. And so here lies the lonely man in the industrialised world who fears Pandora and her box.
To find this rich subtext embedded into a complex, unconventionally structured narrative that I don’t want to give away too much of, certainly give Suzhou River a go.
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