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Wei Shujun’s 河边的错误 [He bian de cuo wu/Mistake(s) by the River]

Mistakes by the River

河边的错误 (click to embiggen)

河边的错误 [Mistake(s) by the River] aka Only the River Flows, China 2023. Directed by Wei Shujun, written by Kang Chunlei and Wei Shujun. Based on the novel 河边的错误 [Mistake(s) by the River] by Yu Hua.

Metropol Phantom, Row 1, Seat 3. Original version w/ subs.

(This post also appears, in slightly different format, at my Instagram account betweendrafts.)

Mistakes (or Mistake) by the River, based on Yu Hua’s eponymous novella (the English title “Only the River Flows” makes no sense whatsoever) is a neo-noir mystery, a period piece set in the 1990s, and a postmodern funhouse where the police investigators endlessly scrutinize filmed and taped evidence in a repurposed movie theater, along with an increasingly unreliable narrative, a main suspect played by one of the screenwriters, and ambiguous cause-and-effect relationships reminiscent of the Inspector’s tale in Coover’s Gerald’s Party. For the protagonist, the murder case cannot be simple because he’s the protagonist in a mystery, after all, and clues that are found from mistakes by the river—made by people who choose this spot to live out secret/illicit fantasies—must have meaning. So it’s his obsessive investigation itself that triggers more calamities and more clues until the rabbit hole becomes so deep that his own memories and reality falter. It feels as if nothing can be trusted anymore; but the trick is that there’s no “there” there except the investigator’s self-created abyss. Which the very first (nutshell technique) scene already prefigures.

Wei’s directing, particularly his actor placement, is outstanding. Chengma shot on 16mm film with an Arriflex 416, except for one digitally filmed dream sequence he wanted to look “clearer than reality.” What he achieves with 16mm in low-light conditions is marvelous and so convincing it makes one forget the movie’s production year. The outdoor set pieces are muddy and dark and brooding under a constant torrential rain reminiscent of the cities in Fincher’s Se7en or Scott’s Blade Runner, and there’s palpable tension between the old way (Cultural Revolution) and the new way (consumerism), visually manifest in the protagonist’s cool 1990s sleuth jacket individualism and his precinct’s old-school (literal) uniformity and collectivism.

The soundtrack is dominated by Gilels’s rendering of Beethoven’s No.14 Op.27/2 (almost certainly the more measured 1980 DG recording), which even switches from non-diegetic to diegetic in an early scene.

Finally, Zhu Yilong is a terrific actor who looks irresistibly good.

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