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Wei Shujun Adapts A Bleak, Inscrutable Noir [Cannes]

May 28, 2023

Chinese author Yu Hua is no stranger to Cannes. The famed postmodernist writer’s work first graced the silver screens of the Palais back in 1994 with director Zhang Yimou’s masterclass adaptation of his seminal novel, “To Live.” A searing portrait of a single family’s struggle through China’s mid-century upheaval and the Cultural Revolution, “To Live” would go on to win the festival’s coveted Grand Prix award, Prize of the Ecumenical Jury, and the Best Actor Award. Almost 20 years later, Yu Hua’s prose returns to Cannes in a different mode through Wei Shujun’s “Only The River Flows,” the filmmaker’s third consecutive feature to premiere at Cannes since 2020. Eschewing the sweeping canvas of “To Live” for a mesmerizing, intractable noir, “Only The River Flows” centers on a mysterious murder in a riverside town, the lackadaisical bureaucracy surrounding the case, and the detective obsessed with solving the killing. 
READ MORE: 2023 Cannes Film Festival: 21 Must-See Movies To Watch
Don’t let the intimate, mystery trappings of “Only The River Flows” fool you; it’s every bit a snapshot of China — and China’s change — as Yu Hua’s other works. Through Wei Shujun’s enigmatic lens, the film opens as a young boy in a Teamster’s jacket traipses through a dilapidated apartment, only stopping when a blown-out wall reveals the chugging of excavators, ripping apart the old neighborhood. It’s the 90s, Deng Xiaoping’s reforms are in full force, and the tectonic plates under Chinese society are shifting once again. 
Also amidst this change, in the city of Peishui, is police detective Ma Zhe (Zhu Yilong), a haggardly handsome gumshoe tasked with solving a recent murder: An older woman has been found bludgeoned to death at a nearby river’s edge, and the primary suspect is the town’s resident vagrant, known colloquially only as the “madman” (Kang Chunlei). The chain of command pushes for an open-and-shut case, but Ma Zhe — as we suspect — is too good at his job and too diligent to sweep complications under the rug. What begin as wrinkles in the case soon unravel into a dark comedy of errors, with inexplicable connections beginning to weigh heavily upon the detective’s psyche. Hidden affairs and sudden confessions become frustrating roadblocks, and Ma Zhe’s pursuit of the handicapped “madman” begins to bleed into his personal life as his pregnant wife (Chloe Maayan) discovers their unborn child may or may not be born with a mental disability.
When it comes to “Only The River Flows,” I’m a cheap date: Its sumptuous low-light, 16mm compositions — courtesy of DP Chengma Zhiyuan — are as grizzled as its fraying protagonist, the tinkling of Chopin is bleakly effective as the film’s earworm-esque murder motif, and the riverside killings affectionately recall the elevated brummagem of Brian De Palma. Its neo-noir construction, as dream-like sequences, invade Ma Zhe’s unspooling sanity, is seemingly tailored for lovers of thorny, inscrutable mysteries. But in the end — perhaps by design — something is missing from “Only The River Flows,” its final destination of revelation perpetually out of reach, much like Ma Zhe’s elusive “madman” perp. 
Zhu Yilong’s hardboiled detective makes for a fascinating center, especially as the fissures of reality deepen and the lines between dreams and nightmares dissolve, but “Only The River Flows” has a central mystery too liminal to bridge its abundance of noir-tinged observations. A police officer on the precipice of obsession, the rippling fabric of political reform, the nagging specter of parental concern: it’s all barely held together by its languid whodunit. Better as a portrait of a small river town and its denizens’ idiosyncratic secrets, the pieces of the jigsaw aren’t meant to fit together, but “Only The River Flows” also falls short of the grand, impenetrable tapestry it wants to weave. [B-]
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Disclaimer: This story is auto-aggregated by a computer program and has not been created or edited by filmibee.
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