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                On Lou Ye’s motion picture
                                ‘SUZHOU RIVER’ (2000)

            SCOTT ESPOSITO

I grew up, after all, in an era that was unlike any other;
and what made it basically different was the motion picture.

                —Czesław Miłosz

In 1917, the UC theater in Berkeley, California, began to display the fantasies of humankind. It was not a movie theater, it was a nickelodeon; it only cost five cents to spend time bathed in the stories we were just learning to tell. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics of the U.S. government, this would amount to a cost of 94 cents today. Birth of a Nation wrenched films from being cheap, fixed-perspective, short-duration spectacles to a medium with unique rhythms, telling new tales for a modern humanity. It so continued showing mainstream films for mainstream people until the 1970s, when new ownership began taking it in a decidedly more artistic direction. In 1977 the UC became widely known as the best place to participate in the carnivalesque rite that had begun to surround the Rocky Horror Picture Show. In 1978 Werner Herzog ate his shoe there after simmering it in duck fat in the kitchen of Chez Panisse, his way of fêting Errol Morris’s first documentary, duly premiered afterwards. As these honors accumulated, it collected a pleasing sheen of glory and became known to the dorks behind the counter at the video rental store as the place to see foreign and risky film.

All told, the UC projected our collective dreams for 84 years, until 2001, when it was closed down because no one could afford to safeguard it against the next big earthquake. Of the several Berkeley movie theaters that survived from the era of the nickelodeon until the third millennium, the UC was the only one to never remodel into a multiplex. From birth till death it contained just one screen, some 1,300 seats fanning out around it in three large wedges.

In literature, as in life, we don’t always know what is part of a story until the story has reached its conclusion.

                —Javier MARÍAS

I knew nothing about the history of the UC theater when I stepped into it for the second and last time in spring 2001. I was not there to genuflect before a palace of cinematic art. I barely even knew what good film was. I was just on a date. In my right hand I clutched the hand of a woman. For several months we had been two people falling in love.

She says: If I leave you some day, would you look for me forever?
He says: Yes.
She says: You’re lying.

Water is the biggest metaphor. It covers nearly 3/4 of the planet, it's nearly 2/3 of our bodies. It's the well of life essential to survival, the foundation of the world's storied cities, the veins of any great nation, the boundless expanses we have not yet tamed. It moves perpetually, perpetually formless, always poised to assume any shape, penetrate any crevice.

If we fall into it, it will kill us. Every year thousands end themselves by leaping from the extraordinary bridges girding great cities. The appeal of this death is in its simplicity, poeticism, and symbolism. Oftentimes when I am walking in the hills not far from where I make my home, I can look across the bay and see the Golden Gate Bridge, a landmark that is considered to be the second-most-popular place to commit suicide on Earth.

The first-most-popular is the Nanjing Yangtze River Bridge in Nanjing, China, not all that far from the Suzhou River in Shanghai.

Suzhou River is a movie about suicide by water, about a kind of love that people depend on to give form to the chaos of their lives, about what happens when that story breaks. As I watched it, it became part of my story of falling into love.

The videographer likes to float down the Suzhou River and record Shanghai with his handheld camcorder. “If you watch it long enough,” he says, “the river will show you everything.” It will, but only because it happens to flow through the biggest mass of urbanized humanity on Earth: modern-day Shanghai, 24 million people. “There’s a century’s worth of stories here, and rubbish.”

A place like Shanghai demolishes traditional notions of love. When you’re looking for a mate, how much choice is 24 million people? This is hard to grasp. Imagine the average American supermarket, 47,000 different products. I go at least once a week and I still lose track of where to find things. Now picture walking down the aisles of the grocery selling 24 million items. You need just 1 product, the one that you are “meant to be with.” How would you ever decide?

This is very different from the Middle Ages, when our notions of romantic love were hammered out. Communities were tiny—in the year 1400, a high point population-wise, all of Europe held just 80 million people, scarcely three times the size of Shanghai. Travel was rare. You would probably have been born, grown up, fallen in love, and died all in the same tiny village. On those scales there would be some hope of finding the person you were “meant to be with.”

That's not how things are now. The astronomical odds of love in Shanghai, I would argue, is basically the experience of all of us who live in the modernized world. Though our cities aren’t quite as enormous as Shanghai, we do travel everywhere, we communicate flawlessly over immense distances. The pool that we are choosing a single mate from is ungraspable. In fact, never, ever has there been more choice. Thus the food of dating apps, hookups, swipe left, swipe right, the constant pressure to trade up, the oppressive fear of missing out. With so many beautiful, qualified people to choose from, is there any other sensible reaction? It beggars the notion of “right choice.” The one person on Earth you are meant to be with, that’s ridiculous.

And still, I believe there is necessity in these bonds, because they form the backbones of our narratives. We are all hewing out the stories of our lives, and nothing is more integral to that story that your life’s great love. The people that my master narratives depend on stabilize my sense of self, they give me mileposts, a compass, a means of forward motion. Without such people, the story I tell myself about myself would dissolve. As the innumerable details of our lives intersect, I can see a kind of mysticism, an agency beyond comprehension, and that exerts a binding force on who I am.

Romantic love introduced the idea of a narrative into an individual’s life.

                —Anthony GIDDENS

And how complex are the paths that bring any two people together in the Chinese mega-city? Director Lou Ye’s Shanghai is nonstop hustle. Everything here is constantly buzzing in frenzy—deals, dealers, dealing, delivery, cronies, thievery, vice, dives, bleeding, beating, exes, extortion, kidnapping, suicide. All this turmoil in a gray zone. We never figure out who these people are, where they came from, what they want to become. They are just pure vectors of desire whose paths sometimes cross, run parallel for a while, terminate, fly off in their own directions.job, his livelihood depends on exposing as many people as possible to his pager number, which he stencils day and night onto any Shanghai wall. “Pay me and I’ll shoot anything,” he says. “I’ll even shoot you pissing or making love.” The Videographer has a camera, he’s sort of a film guy, but don’t mistake him for a purveyor of personal fantasies. He’s not that kind of film guy. “Don’t complain if you don’t like what you see,” he says. “Cameras don’t lie.”

One day, he gets a call from a seedy bar that wants to advertise its mermaids. The only distinguishing thing about this trash heap is that it's got an enormous aquarium front and center. The Happy Tavern’s boss wants the Videographer to film his mermaid shimmying through the floodlit water so he can spam it around Shanghai and get all the leery men to have a beer.

Of course, when the Videographer sees Meimei's lithe, bikini’d, blonde wig’d body corkscrewing through the water he falls right in love.middle-aged guy in a crap suit hiring a video hustler to film a woman dressed as a mermaid to advertise his crummy bar. How much sense can this possibly make? It’s shoddy plotting, a little ridiculous, and what’s more, Lou is blatantly cramming in symbolism by the pound here. This amateurism is a feature, not a bug, for Suzhou River is a movie that proudly garbs itself in rags. From front to back it’s all duct-taped contrivance, this particular scenario being a perfect expression of Lou’s aesthetic, which might be described as “who, me?” meets a handy cam. If it works at all, it’s because Lou is such an impulsive, manic filmmaker, he machine guns the story at you, just keeps piling symbol upon character upon image upon plot twist, it’s nonstop southpawing. So before I can even begin processing how absurd this premise is, I’m swamped by all these beautiful shots of Meimei swishing through the water and mugging at the Videographer’s camera, and then he’s calling her pager at a gigantic yellow pay phone, and then they’re ambling together down some neon-lit boulevard, falling in love, Meimei’s screen presence just soaking up all the energy in the shot.

The fact is I practice absurdity quite religiously!

                —Alfred HITCHCOCK

Suzhou River is such a grimy, slipshod film (I mean this as a compliment!) that I’m tempted to believe Lou’s an affiliate member of Dogme95, or at least an enthusiast. Just like those guys, he’s always making do with whatever’s at hand, and if there happens to be a little lint on the lens (which very distractingly happens in a pivotal scene about 27 minutes in), well leave it there! Lou’s generally grouped with China’s so-called Sixth Generation, a school of filmmakers famous for shooting on microscopically small budgets, and whose handheld cameras and ambient sound give their work an amateur feel. Probably this willingness to grime around in cinema’s trashheap is an asset to Chinese filmmakers like Lou who are forced to work at the margins. The fact is, in Chinese cinema you can’t get screened without kneeling at the feet of the censors, so many directors forego that entirely, meaning that their projects will be poorly financed, shot on the sly, and have only underground, illicit distribution in China. Suzhou River was banned in Lou’s home country for many years, it was seen the world over before it was ever legally seen there, and because Lou had the temerity to make it, the government officially banned him from filming so much as a single scene for two whole years.

Speaking of amateur, I've never seen in any other movie what I see in Suzhou River, which are the arms of the Videographer, our first-person protagonist, angling into the frame from either side, as though the camera lens was right in the middle of his head. The effect kind of resembles a point-of-view shooter like Doom or Call of Duty. This is all we ever see of the Videographer, just his hands and the occasional forearm, no face, no torso, no legs, feet, shoulders, eyes, mouth, hair, none of that. Just these two arms. I’m tempted to think that this all began as some sort of a joke, that Hua Zhongkai, who voiceovers the Videographer, just said to Lou, why don’t you hold the camera, and I’ll stand behind you and reach around with my arms, and then they tried it just to see what would happen and suddenly realized that it’s perfect. Myself, I love the simplicity of it, the—I’m tempted to say elegance—the absolute literalism to the point of naïveté, the way it works in spite of itself, which is the only way it could work. It’s campy as fuck, and I think that’s the point, this odd gambit trumpeting the permanently makeshift ethos of everything in Suzhou River, this in turn reflecting Lou’s vision of 24 million souls hashing out life in the 21st-century mega-city par excellence.

I make films mostly by instinct.

                —Wong KAR-WAI

These Instagram-before-Instagram shots of the Videographer and Memei lol-ing through Shanghai and falling in love are just about perfect. All at once they're elegiac and wistful while also capturing the poetry and electricity of romance.

It's just a woman wearing sweat-shop-surplus, blowing cigarette smoke, popping bubbles, underexposed, overexposed, dancing up to a pylon and giving the camera a deep look while a little wind blows through her hair. Do you need anything more? Do you need eight make-up teams and ten-thousand-dollar dresses, perfect lighting, an aching score, or are those just the excesses we’ve grown accustomed to? Then they’re in her bedroom playing pattycake, their hands moving into impossible accelerations, that most remarkable wolf’s grin on Meimei’s face, and again I have to say that this is all so utterly simple, so—I’m tempted to say elegant—this basic, completely literal gesture that I love for its effortlessness.

Now we're in the Viedeographer's shabby apartment, broad daylight, a heavy rain, he’s watching Meimei try on dresses as she prepares to go out. How he stares. His steadfast eyes. Fixed. She’s pulling the fabric up over her head, revealing her skinny body in black lingerie, zipping herself into another dress, primping, pulling on a cool leather jacket and throwing him a big smile as she blows a kiss. The Videographer’s voyeurism is the calcium giving Suzhou River its shape and strength. Now he’s peeping down on her crossing the bridge of the Suzhou River, dwelling in his fears of abandonment, he’ll surely lose Meimei one day, pure paranoid mutterings while he spies on just about anyone.

Meimei is the kind of woman that you don't know exactly how or why she’s so desirable. If you were to ask me what her best feature is, I couldn’t say, nothing really stands out. She’s just your everyday girl. If she faded into Shanghai’s millions, nobody would notice. And yet Meimei has got remarkable magnetism, she’s the kind of woman I don’t get tired of seeing move about the screen, that cinematic presence I always want a little more of.

Maybe Meimei knows her life is way more banal than she deserves, maybe when she’s mermaiding around her big old fishbowl she broods on the drooling men and decides she deserves something extraordinary, because one day she tells the Videographer he should be more like this guy Mardar. Mardar! Who the hell is Mardar? He’s a motorcycle courier who gave his life over to searching for a woman he lost. Meimei saw it in the paper. This woman, she leapt from a bridge and drowned herself in the Suzhou River, but they never proved she died, so now her would-be lover spends day after day searching Shanghai for her.

Which comes to think of it is creepy and obsessive and makes out Mardar to be like the Chinese edition of some American named Darko who’s wrapped in a black cape and sporting sweet studded boots—and don’t people find guys like this compelling because they’re just going for it, in the way that we’re not exactly going for it in our stable little lives feeding ennui with Sartre and $15 cocktails at that trendy bar? Why wouldn’t Meimei want this? I mean, she’s dating the Videographer. And, to be painfully honest, I do picture our workmanlike filmmaker as the kind of tolerably mediocre dude that you’re forced to assume must harbor positive qualities, because someone who seems so trite couldn’t possibly score a catch like Meimei, or at least couldn’t keep her.

We are always in a routine. Most of my films deal with people who are stuck in certain routines and habits that don’t make them happy. They want to change, but they need something to push them. I think it’s mostly love that causes them to break their routines and move on.

                —Wong KAR-WAI

Mardar comes screaming into Suzhou River on his chopper with a tight little close-up and a jarring sound like a dump truck cramming the accelerator. It’s all shrieks and dissonance, a powerful moment, menacing, frightening even, and I’ve always been struck by how it’s completely undercut by the motorcycle helmet Mardar’s wearing. It’s this childish little bowl-like thing, and even if you put James Dean in this helmet he’d look like an elf. I have no idea how a it reads to a Chinese audience; to my eyes it just looks meek, not dangerous or motorcycle at all. Maybe this is Lou’s way of saying that Mardar can’t possibly ft the badass persona he seems to want, or maybe he actually thought this helmet enhanced his masculine appeal. I don’t know. It’s always struck me as odd, I clearly recall thinking this the very first time I saw Mardar all those years back at the UC.

When I stepped back into the UC theater to watch Suzhou River, I’d hardly been in any movie theaters outside of the great Southern Californian mega-multiplexes, enormous atriums with a vaguely museum-like feel that led to complex arrangements of halls. The aesthetics of those icy amphitheaters were nothing like the art decos in downtown Berkeley, where instead of a gladiatorial arena you would cram into a box-like chamber, almost a chapel. At that point I didn’t notice how these changed surroundings subtly but definitely changed the experience of a film. And nor did I think about the context a movie was made in. Like, for instance, the fact that Jia Hongsheng, aka Mardar, was something along the lines of China’s Robert Downey, Jr—once a top actor, he fell into drug addiction, and Suzhou River was his comeback vehicle. Nor did I know that Zhou Xun, who plays Meimei, is a mega-star, now acknowledged as China’s leading actress, this a role that helped propel her to super-stardom. I certainly wouldn’t have reflected on how strangely appropriate it was that Jia and Zhou fell in love on the set of Suzhou River, remaining in love for four years, until 2005; and I would not have felt the eerie tragedy of the fact that five years after they fell out of love, in 2010, Jia committed suicide by leaping to his death.

All of this is purely second-nature now, this way of looking at all the contextual extras is so deeply embedded I can no longer make contact with the naïve moviegoer I was in 2001. To get back there, I’d have to strive for another 16 years to forget everything I have learned about watching movies over the course of the last 16. This understanding of art has rearranged the architecture of my brain matter, all I have left now of the old me are kernels of memories that are still somehow accessible. I can for instance recall that on my very first visit to the UC they had shown three consecutive previews for each film in Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Blue, White, Red trilogy; I retain a strong memory of very cleverly surmising that after Blue and White we must now be shown a preview for Red. This certain memory was a thing I thought back to approximately seven years later, when I actually did watch Blue, White, Red—seven years, the distance between a point of total ignorance, and a point of being able to anticipate, comprehend, and relish Kieslowski.

Seeing Suzhou River was one small lesson in this decade-plus refashioning of my cinematic brain. The same has happened with the great love that has dominated my life these 16 years since; I’ve again and again re-adapted the narrative of this relationship to fit my mind’s new dimensions.

Now we get Mardar’s story, as told to us by the Videographer, and Suzhou River becomes a story-within-a-story. It’s very weird how, after Mardar’s introduction, the Videographer begins to relate substantial events in his life, despite not knowing anything about all of these intimate details. He very blatantly just starts imagining who Mardar might be. Right when the Videographer’s formerly straightforward love story begins to become murky and complex, the movie jumps from the literal truth of the video camera to the very shaky truth of hearsay, imagination, and memory. Certainly this is what happens to all of us would-be lovers as those breezy first weeks of our relationship give way to the negotiated truth of those long-haul affairs.

To represent that we are now in the Videographer's mind—and not his video recorder—Suzhou River’s camera angle switches from that awkward, Call of Duty-esque first-person to a very tight third-person, so tight that it occasionally feels like first-person and I forget that I’m no longer in the point of view of the Videographer. The camera is still as voyeuristic as ever. It’s wandering through Mardar’s junky apartment in the middle of the night, it’s watching him watch himself in the bathroom mirror while he brushes his teeth, even zooming in to get a closer examination.

Mardar is a motorcycle courier, who, among other things, is paid to give rides to a young woman named Moudan, actually the same actress that plays Meimei but looking ten years younger. She's not wearing sexy dresses and mermaid bikinis; instead she’s got on juniors outfits and has her hair pulled to opposite sides in two girlish ponytails. It’s not exactly clear if she’s merely supposed to look like a child or actually be one, an ambiguity that Lou does just about everything he can to play up.

Moudan conceals a lot of sass beneath her childish reserve, picking little arguments with Mardar about his old-lady-like motorcycling, resting her head on his shoulder, making him take extra-long routes so they can be together longer. It’s clear what’s happening. In the big falling-in-love scene, Moudan greets Mardar by stretching high up on her tippy toes and finging her arms akimbo, one hand holding a mermaid doll, the other clutching a bottle of her wealthy father’s signature product: buffalo grass vodka. If that’s not a metaphor for Moudan’s complete ambiguity as a feminine presence in this movie, I don’t know what is.

But even though Mardar is clearly growing attached to her, he remains ambiguous, inscrutable. The camera tends to focus in on Moudan, leaving Mardar as just a muscular arm and a thick torso that gestures at her in some lumpy manner. When we do get to see him, his eyes are often hidden beneath the visor of his motorcycle helmet. Even when he and Moudan are alone in his apartment, his head is frequently turned away, his grim mouth forever paused on the journey to an actual semiotic expression, his eyes staring out somewhere far beyond Moudan’s face.

The heartbreaking night that Moudan swoops in on Mardar’s apartment unexpectedly and tries to force herself on him, he’s just as deadpan as ever. Maybe he’s not interested, maybe he is. Who knows. On this rainy, pivotal night, as she shows up with tears in her eyes, clutches him, and just cries and cries and begs him to love her, Mardar is as steely and silent as ever. It’s a heartbreaker.

Shortly after this reckoning, Mardar and this shady older woman he’s kinda, maybe seeing concoct a plan: they’re going to kidnap Moudan and ransom her. My gut tells me Mardar doesn’t want to do this, he knows Moudan really trusts and loves him; he resists, but he’s pretty heavily outmaneuvered, so he gives in. He gets Moudan drunk and takes her off to some abandoned building, sits her down on a piss-stained couch. This scene is so agonizing because it’s doubtless that Moudan thinks this is it, they’re fnally going to have their tryst. She gazes at Mardar with a playfully insolent look and starts kissing him—for a moment maybe he’s on the verge of just saying fuck it all and giving in—but then that grim between-expressions expression pops back on his face. He shoves her down. And she keeps popping back up and he keeps shoving her back down, a little more forcefully each time, she’s looking more and more defated. Lou keeps the camera right on Moudan’s face so that you can see the message getting through shove by shove. I can’t stand watching her hope turn to rejection, that rejection turning into the worst kind of betrayal.

As the wait for the money drags on, things turn toxic. At one point Mardar takes Moudan out to pee like a dog, just sits in a corner of the roof and watches her, this ultimate humiliation, this blatant power that says you are nothing at all to me. And it’s here that Lou takes a tight shot of Mardar’s face, for once we can see an expression, the gravity of this dire turn sinking in as he looks out onto the hazy sun ennobling the Suzhou River with a golden hue, the soundtrack welling up, something a little like the opening movement of Sibelius’s Second symphony, grandiose music of Western angst.

This is how the mermaid legends get started. It's only after you lose something forever that the memory of what you had becomes real enough to destroy you. You need the chance to make it right, but you won’t get it, because she’s already dead, when the ransom gets paid and you stupidly blurt out that she was worth just $50,000, you know that you did it, you should have said it was $20 million at the least, $50 million, you’re priceless, but when you said I sold your trust for $50,000 you took whatever was remaining in her and burnt it to a crisp, you’d need at least a lifetime to make it up to her, but you’re not going to get that, you’re just going to get 10 feverous minutes as you chase her surprisingly quick body through the streets of Shanghai, that body popping itself up over the guardrail on a bridge crossing the Suzhou River, that little preening smile filled with revenge, that last dead stare—this stare you’ll always remember, it will haunt you—no longer childish, now womanly regret, damning you, this face you loved growing smaller and fainter as it falls down into the water.

Mermaids are of course creatures that are one-half woman, one-half fish. They are among the oldest literary tropes—Ancient Greek coins have been found depicting the goddess Atargatis, whose mythical transformation into a mermaid was told well over a thousand years before Christ. Like many mermaids, Atargatis was a female who made her transformation after leaping to her death following a romantic disaster; her continued existence in mermaid form represents a transitional realm, a living death where once-women are still of this planet, yet are of foglike consistency, occasionally seen but impossible to touch, forever estranged from human society.

I think, too, we can read the mermaids in Suzhou River as a commentary on what film makes us into. In the cinema we are all mermaids. We leave the bright and empirical realm of the everyday to descend into a darkened room only tenuously connected to the outside world, and within this realm of illusions we are capable of being absorbed by gulfs of fantasy. Meimei swims the plexiglassed waters of the Happy Tavern; we moviegoers swirl through the emanations of our unglimpsed yearnings, still very human yet also now celestial, still completely alive yet also now in communion with ghosts. We become dual in flm. Were we to discover heaven, it would perhaps be akin to these fashing lights, these oceanic spectacles made from the world’s untouched thoughts.

When cinema was invented, it was initially used to record life, like an extension of photography. It became an art when it moved away from the documentary. It was at this point that it was acknowledged as no longer a means of mirroring life, but a medium by which to intensify it.
—Alfred Hitchcock

Mardar's backstory ends, it's years later, the Videographer has just met Meimei and fallen in love with her, now Mardar has returned to Shanghai after years in exile. The Videographer is still inventing Mardar’s story, in fact he even pauses to remind us that he’s really making it up now, and since Lou’s movie is a love story there’s only one place it can go: Mardar accidentally discovers Meimei in the Happy Tavern, and he instantly thinks he’s seen his dead Moudan come back to life.

Through Meimei's dressing room curtains he spies her transform into a mermaid. For the second time, Lou’s voyeuristic camera stares as this beautiful woman dresses, only now it is not the Videographer’s point of view but Mardar’s, the entire frame blackened except for a vein of action off-center. Mardar peeps as Meimei transforms into a salaryman fantasy, she takes a long blonde wig, a bikini top, a fish bottom, the neon lights of the Happy Tavern splash pink, daisy, and cornflower all over her, this long shot is filled with deep shadows, the whole scene slightly garish and with dream-like edges. Meimei’s back is turned, her face is only visible in refection as she fixes herself in the mirror, then she meanders up, moves about the room, stares off in the private gaze that we reserve for when we feel absolutely alone.

A provocative symmetry is at work: the Videographer first watched Meimei dress to play herself in the dingy streets of Shanghai, Mardar now watches her become an object for a completely artificial environment. This romantic dialectic is the heart of Suzhou River—it is also the line we tread when we become moviegoers—this is a film about blending up the mundane and the impossible, the fancies we force onto the objects of our affection, the realities that damn the dreamers. In the aesthetic of Suzhou River the mermaid is a powerful memory: the week-long fuck that can never be equaled, the lost love that fills your eyes with distance. So when Mardar watches Meimei transform into the mermaid, it is at once to see Moudan lose her childish ambiguity, to have his stifed feelings for her fame up into absolute passion. Two desires—one at the forefront of Mardar’s mind, the other deeply buried in his subconscious—suddenly fulfilled in one lengthy voyeurism, the film’s longest take, its most singular visual scene. Mardar will never have anything quite as good again.

The music in this long moment is a strange aural mélange. First it’s a Chinese pop song faintly washing up from the bar, then an Eastern-sounding fute playing a lingering, nostalgic melody; next, something resembling an ambient beat asserts control, itself transforming into a guitar’d tango-esque song of longing and passion, and then at last the symphonic Sibelius music begins riffng in and out over the tango. The effect is dislocating and postmodern, the entire film chopped and mixed into a wishful, wistful montage.

How long will a nice girl tolerate being stalked by a creep? Will her heart soften if he tells her that she reminds him of a dead woman he loved? Will it seem to her more creepy still, or will it instead become seductive if he insists she is that woman? Will it make a difference if this latter-day, Shanghai-born Don Quixote cuts a far more romantic figure than her current dull bed-body? Will she perhaps begin to wish she was this woman? Will she find ways to convince herself that she might be her? For how long will she prolong her tedious relationship when this passionate fantasy beckons? What will she do when she decides she wants this fantasy? Will she rush off and leave her video-boy behind, or will she give him one last chance to prove himself to her?

In love the individual goes beyond himself, beyond the narcissistic. In sex, you are really in a relationship with yourself via the mediation of the other. The other helps you to discover the reality of pleasure. In love, on the contrary, the mediation of the other is enough in itself.

                —Alain BADIOU

Clearly, Mardar spells trouble for the Videographer. The more this good-looking, intense bro with the great eyes comes and tells lovesick stories to Meimei, the more he insinuates in her a dissatisfaction that grows and grows until, at last—a pretty ugly fight—and then, dénouement: if it’s not exactly a break-up, it’s pretty definitely a break. But just when it looks like things are finally going Mardar’s way, somebody hires a thug squadron to beat the living shit out of him as he’s exiting the Happy Tavern. This kind of makes him crack. The first thing he does after putting his face back together is pop on over to the Videographer’s house and tell him that he’s heading away to look for Moudan—at last he’s acting like Moudan and Meimei are two different people. He also tells the Videographer that Meimei really loves him and implies that they belong together.

What the hell has just happened? Is getting beat to within an inch of your life the Suzhou River equivalent of electro-shock therapy? Why is Mardar suddenly talking sense? And why does he decide to confide in his romantic rival? I don’t get this turn of events at all, and nor do I particularly grasp why the Happy Tavern is suddenly closed down the next day. Within the space of about 5 minutes everything in this movie has gone back to zero. The Videographer is alone, the bar that promised to change his life is gone, Meimei is nowhere to be found, Mardar has left, Moudan is no more. It’s just as though this story were never told.

I'd argue that this is a consummately cinematic plot line, the business that shakes up the narrator’s life but then suddenly disappears, ultimately feeling no more real than a dream. It’s a standard of noir, a powerful cinematic genre that’s peerless for evoking the absurdity and isolation of modern life. I also find utterly filmic how this sort of plot pretzels itself and unapologetically comes to naught. Film has this privilege that we deny to the other arts. Films can be insubstantial, they can be daydreams. They don’t need to have a deeper meaning. They’re to pass a couple hours in a comfortable chair in a climate-controlled room, a thing you do with a woman because you and she need a thing to do in order to be together for the night. Movies are not like books or paintings or symphonies, where the investment is so much greater and where the experience is fused to an apparatus meant to usher you toward respect, gravity, profundity. Movies can just be a couple of restful hours. That was my first experience of Suzhou River—imagistic, rapid, confusing, a gauzy bright make believe. I didn’t exactly get it. I mixed up the characters and found it more a feeling than a story. Who cares? I was sitting next to this woman who I was going to spend the whole weekend with, this was our way of making it start. So that was what that night became in my memory, a cinematic romance projected onto my own personal romance, a little like the ache of nostalgia preconceived, some presentiment that one day I’d eye this memory with longing. As if looking at the deep blue spring dusk sky over Berkeley as we walked back from the UC I purposely thought I terribly wanted to touch that blue, so that I could fix that sensation of wanting to touch the blue in my memory forever.

I sort of wish I'd just left Suzhou River as that lovely, foggy memory of a perfect early night in a romance that would grow to my life’s all-encompassing love. We watched it once again, she and I, several years later when DVDs were ubiquitous and you could get any one of 100,000 movies delivered right to your home. For years this movie lived in us like a ghost, but now it was much too simple to track it down again, it was a cheat to so easily retrieve what belonged strictly to that night. Enough then, or maybe even too much. But then this film project came along, and I began to feel very strongly that Suzhou River was a part of it, so now I’ve gone and watched it maybe a dozen times and know every little thing there is to know and so have plastered over that space in my brain. If I try really hard I can still get a little sensation of that date, the trail that winds through the Cal campus, the dark blue of dusk, she and I very much in that moment and not wanting anything else.

But of course, you know this isn't the end.

The Videographer gets a package: a note from Mardar and a bottle of buffalo grass vodka. Blankly roaming Shanghai, Mardar just happened to find Moudan working as a clerk in a 24-hour convenience store. He walked in, she asked him what he wanted, he requested a bottle of buffalo grass vodka, and when he realized who she was she finally looked adult. At last they’re together, but not for long. Police summon the Videographer to the banks of the Suzhou River, where he finds two dead bodies. So intoxicated, they didn’t ever want to touch reality again.

The Videographer tells Meimei, they spend all night together like old times. One last, perfect night, and then in the morning Meimei can’t resist asking the Videographer if he’d go looking for her too. Of course he says he would, and she just looks down into her hands, her head shaking no. “You’re lying,” she says, “things like that only happen in love stories.” He caresses her hair one last time, the next day he hops over to her houseboat and finds a short letter waiting for him.

She's right. He doesn't look. He gets drunk on vodka. “The best damn drink I ever had,” he says. “Nothing lasts forever.”

There you have it, a perfectly prosaic individual, left behind by one who reaches toward a fantasy.  And why not—can the perfectly prosaic really be in love? Should a woman who wants true love accept a man who doesn’t care for anything more than just reality?

There's a reason why movies are the most ubiquitous date, love needs fantasies, it needs love stories, without those it crashes against the unimpeachable facts. Films have always nourished she and I. Our third date, Hitchcock’s 39 Steps, we began to swim within the images of our collective dreams. An uncountable number of dates later, let’s call it one-hundred-and-one, Lou’s unreality became another story we shared. And now, as I recount those days, we are still here in love, still looking, still doubled in images, still in possession of each other’s memories, imagination, these forms as multiple as the water.

Veronica SCOTT ESPOSITO is is the author of four books, most recently The Doubles from Civil Coping Mechanisms. He is a frequent contributor to the Times Literary Supplement and the San Francisco Chronicle, and his work has appeared in BOMB Magazine, Tin House, The White Review, The Lifted Brow, The Believer, The Washington Post, and others. He was a finalist for the 2014 Graywolf Nonfiction Prize.

‘TO BECOME A MERMAID’ is an excerpt from Esposito’s book The Doubles: A Book on Film (Civil Coping Mechanisms, 2017). Part memoir-through-film, part inquiry into the effect art has on our lives, The Doubles is a passionate, exquisitely written examination of 14 films that have made him. Retelling one film per year, and covering 20 years of Esposito's life from 19962016, The Doubles shows the development via film of a critical intelligence and a maturing human being. From classic cinema like A Clockwork Orange to cosmological documentaries like A Brief History of Time to offbeat works like Koyaanisqatsi and major contemporary fare like Boyhood.

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Partner to a press called Tenement, Hotel is a publications series for new approaches to fiction, non fiction & poetry & features work from established & emerging talent. Hotel provides the space for experimental reflection on literature’s status as art & cultural mediator. 

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