'Only a River Runs' Review: A mysterious Chinese serial killer pays homage to film noir

‘Only a River Runs’ Review: A mysterious Chinese serial killer pays homage to film noir

A film noir so vintage it comes wrapped in crackling celluloid and old cassettes, Only the river flows (He Whites Cuo Wu) follows an obsessive detective’s long and elusive hunt for a serial killer in 1990s provincial China, and the effect it has on a small town with many secrets lurking beneath the surface.

Written and directed by Shujun Wei (Striding into the wind), the film is not so much a nail-biting thriller as a mind-bending homage to the noir genre itself, with echoes of Jean-Pierre Melville, Chinatown AND Memories of murder. But even more, it is a portrait of Chinese society before the recent economic boom and in the wake of the Tiananmen Square protests, at a time when citizens lead repressed lives of quiet desperation.

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Only the river flows

The bottom line

A retro mystery that folds in on itself.

Place: Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard)
Launch: Yilong Zhu, Chloe Maayan, Tianlai Hou, Linkai Tong, Chunlei Kang
Director: Shujun Wei
Screenwriters: Shujun Wei, Chunlei Kang, based on the novel by Hua Yu

1 hour and 42 minutes

Some of those lives unravel at the hands of Ma Zhe (Yilong Zhu), the lead detective of his city’s criminal investigation unit, who, in true cinephile fashion, has been relocated to an abandoned movie theater, with Ma Zhe’s office at the projection booth. (The configuration is similar to that of Via Salto 21with a cinema replacing a church.)

It’s a fitting headquarters for a story set in the pre-digital age, when technology was still mostly analog and photographs or audio recordings were things you could manipulate with your hands. Both of these media outlets will provide key evidence during Ma Zhe’s search for a killer who stalked the local riverbanks, leaving several victims in his path, including an old woman, a forsaken poet and an innocent little boy.

Wei and co-writer Chunlei Kang have adapted their screenplay from a novel by Hua Yu, and the tone they initially take with their material, despite the gruesome murders, is pretty light-hearted. Ma Zhe’s Keystone Kops crew would rather flirt or play ping-pong than do any real police work, and the film’s early scenes are filled with bits of social drama.

But as the investigation progresses, Ma Zhe’s obsession intensifies. It follows a key suspect, known only as the “madman,” who is bonded to the first victim and continues to elude him. And other clues follow that lead him to inadvertently expose the hidden lives of his community, whether it’s an illicit affair between two lovers of poetry or a cross-dressing hairdresser trying to hide his identity from the public.

If the multiple murders in Only the river flows they are what keep the story going, ultimately they work as the MacGuffins revealing something deeper and darker about mid-1990s China. The darkness is amplified when Ma Zhe’s private turmoil, involving the impending birth of a child who may be mentally disabled, creeps into the storyline, causing much friction between the detective and his pregnant wife, Bai Jie (Chloe Maayan) .

Increasingly pushed off course, Ma Zhe is terrified and ashamed of what will happen: isn’t the “crazy” he’s chasing different from his future son? Shame and secrecy seem to be the guiding principles in a time and place where obedience mattered most, and Wei perceptively observes how adhering to social norms might push some people over the edge. Even if Ma Zhe does catch the killer, or at least the person he believes to be the killer, it is a bitter victory, a source of private anguish despite his public triumph.

Shot by the talented Chengma Zhiyuan (Fires in the plain) in an intentionally murky vintage style and nuanced with various shades of mud, the film’s aesthetic echoes its somewhat dull texture, which doesn’t exactly make it a bang-on affair. But like the investigation itself, the meaning of Only the river flows it gradually finds its focal point as the story progresses, leaving the viewer staring into the very same abyss as the detective – an abyss which, as in any respectable film noir, stares back at him.