Writer-director Lou Ye, a figurehead in the Chinese “Sixth Generation” of filmmakers (shorthand definition: post-Zhang Yimou) disguises the tone-poem intentions of this moody movie behind a facade of handheld hipness and the egregious pretentiousness of having the narrator hidden behind a point-of-view camera (which was a bad idea when actor-turned-director Robert Montgomery used it for his flaccid noir, Lady in the Lake, back in 1946). He also borrows, adding a different outcome, the central conceit from Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) and, somewhat more gingerly, from Curtis Harrington’s 1962 cult classic Night Tide, in which Dennis Hopper falls in love with a mermaid. And, somehow, it all comes together.
Our point-of-view hero is a nameless videographer, a camcorder for hire (weddings, funerals, whatever). He falls in love with Meimei (Zhou Xun), whose job is to frolic in a large fish tank while dressed in a mermaid costume in a sleazy bar called the Happy Tavern. The videographer is smitten hard but Meimei wants more, wondering, if she were to disappear, would he look for her forever as in the story of Marder and Moudan, which she proceeds to relate.
Marder, a motorcycle courier and former denizen of the Happy Tavern, became involved with Moudan (also played by Zhou Xun) the daughter of a rich Shanghai smuggler. At first befriending her, he’s later forced by underworld acquaintances to kidnap her in a plot to extort money from her rich father. Crushed by the betrayal, Moudan jumps into the Suzhou River and disappears.
Since no body is recovered, Marder becomes obsessed by the idea that Moudan is still alive and spends years searching for her until he arrives back at the Happy Tavern where a Moudan look-alike, Meimei, is doing her mermaid gig. And so the story comes back to its beginning, but now it’s a triangle of the videographer, the love-stunned Marder and Meimei, who might or might not be Moudan.
Lou Ye’s style is so glib that he seems to have almost accidentally made a deeply affecting film, aided by a wonderful performance by Zhou Xun, playing both the femme-fatale mermaid and the young and innocent Moudan. It’s her beguiling presence which makes it work, as a mystery, a fable and another sad love story.
Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward, Detroit), Monday at 7:30 p.m. Call 313-833-3237.
Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for the Metro Times. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.