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September 24, 2006

Two by Lou Ye


Suzhou River/Suzhou He
Lou Ye - 2000
Strand Releasing Region 1 DVD


Purple Butterfly/Zi Hudie
Lou Ye - 2003
Palm Pictures Region 1 DVD

With Lou Ye in the news a couple of weeks ago, it seemed like a good time to re-see Suzhou River and also see Purple Butterfly. While the two films have some shared thematic elements, especially regarding the nature of love, the two films have different narrative foundations, with Suzhou River advancing through a character's voice-overs, while Purple Butterfly minimizes dialogue in favor of images to tell its story. Lou's uses popular songs to express the thoughts of his characters. This becomes more incisive in using the period songs in Purple Butterfly which additional comment on how the characters view Shanghai.

Suzhou River contains an unexpected blend of Vertigo and Disney's The Little Mermaid along with the most extensive use of point-of-view shots since Robert Montgomery's film of Lady in the Lake, and narration the resembles that from Francois Truffaut. Lou records his two narratives with a shaky camera in available light. Jorg Lemberg's music strongly resembles a reworking of Bernard Herrmann's romantic themes for Hitchcock's film of lost love. In addition to Moudan/Meimei having Little Mermaid dolls, Meimei appears as a little mermaid, swimming in a large glass tank. For Lou, not only can one not depend on what one thinks has been seen, but people are not always who they appear to be.

The deceptiveness of appearances is further explored in Purple Butterfly with a decidedly non-glamourous Zhang Ziyi as a young woman fighting against the Japanese occupation of Shanghai. Lou takes his narrative of love, espionage and treachery, and has it loop around itself. Unlike the small scale Suzhou River, this follow-up is played against an epic, historical background. The film jumps back from time to time in repeating an incident from the point of view of another character, so that what is assumed about relationships and events is undermined and re-ordered. Lou's camerawork is sometimes like that of a nervous onlooker, trying to figure out where to focus and make sense of the chaos. Much of the film is shot using a blue filter adding to the visual darkness of activity that takes place often at night or in the rain.

Lou has upset Chinese authorities by incorporating documentary footage of Tianenmen Square. Again the story is about love against large historical events. While it may not be fully accurate to describe Lou as the Bernardo Bertolucci of China, he is the only other filmmaker I can think of that seems consistently interested in exploring the junctures where politics and erotic love meet.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at September 24, 2006 07:58 AM