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Time Out says
Thu May 14 2009Reviewed at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival
Almost a decade ago, ‘Suzhou River’, a highly imaginative revamping of Hitchcock’s ‘Vertigo’ set in Shanghai that was Lou Ye’s second feature, won a major prize at the Rotterdam Film Festival, found a British distributor, and suggested the Chinese director was someone to watch. He must have been, at least if the Cannes Film Festival is to be believed; all his subsequent features – ‘Purple Butterfly’, ‘Summer Palace’ (greetedy disapproval from China’s Film Bureau for its brief depiction of the events in Tiananmen Square in 1989) – have premiered here. And all three, while far from uninteresting, have proved, if we’re to be frank, a bit disappointing.
‘Butterfly’ mystified many; ‘Summer Palace’ felt unbalanced in its weighing of personal experience against historical momentum; and the new movie is likewise flawed in terms of narrative clarity, focus and structure. As with its immediate predecessor – which besides the Tiananmen elements was fairly robust in its treatment of sexual activity – there’s no denying a certain readiness to court controversy, even to face censorship: it begins with two men driving into the country, breaking for a pee during which they peer playfully at each other, and then arriving at a secret love-nest where they fuck as if there’s no tomorrow. Perhaps there isn’t (this all takes place in the first ten minutes or so); almost at once we discover the wife of one of the men has been having him shadowed by a young man whose own tentative relationship with a young woman is soon undermined when he too begins to fall for the seeming heartbreaker and reluctant marriage-wrecker.
Other characters (too many and too briefly seen by far) intrude into the proceedings, many of them conveyed through ‘moody’ set-to-pleasant-music scenes where the dearth of dialogue and significant action is insufficiently counterbalanced by the somewhat monotonously blank performances pf uncharismatic actors. As one eminent critic whispered towards the end of the film, ‘Leslie Cheung, where are you?’
It’s not as if the increasingly complicated and contrived plotting is helped by the poetic and philosophical theme: namely, that we all come to fruition, emotionally, at different times, and move in different directions. There’s an awful lot of bad timing going on in this rather humourless movie. There’s a suggestion, towards the end, that we’re supposed to feel some kind of infinite sadness about our existential loneliness and vulnerability; but what I felt, despite a scattering of strong scenes, was a growing impatience both with the characters and the trite message.
Author: Geoff Andrew