Shujun Wei’s Serial Killer Thriller  

A film noir that’s so vintage it comes wrapped in crackling celluloid and old cassette tapes, Only the River Flows (He Biande Cuo Wu) follows one 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 plenty of secrets lurking beneath the surface.  

Written and directed by Shujun Wei (Striding into the Wind), the movie is less a nail-biting thriller than a puzzle-like homage to the noir genre itself, with echoes of Jean-Pierre Melville, Chinatown and Memories of Murder. But even more so, it’s 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.

Only the River Flows

The Bottom Line

A retro mystery that turns in on itself.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard)
Cast: 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 42 minutes

A few of those lives unravel at the hands of Ma Zhe (Yilong Zhu), the chief detective in his town’s criminal investigation unit, which, in true film buff fashion, has been relocated to an abandoned movie theatre, with Ma Zhe’s office up in the projection booth. (The setup resembles that of 21 Jump Street, with a cinema replacing a church.)

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

Wei and co-writer Chunlei Kang adapted their script from a novel by Hua Yu, and the tone they initially take with their material, despite the grisly murders, is rather light. Ma Zhe’s crew of Keystone Kops prefer flirting or playing ping-pong to doing any real policework, and the film’s early scenes are filled with bits of observant social dramedy.

But as the investigation progresses, Ma Zhe’s obsession intensifies. He trails a key suspect, known only as the “madman,” who’s linked to the first victim and keeps escaping him. And he follows other clues 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 crossdressing hair stylist trying to conceal his identity from the public.  

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

Increasingly thrown off course, Ma Zhe grows terrified and ashamed about what’s to come: Is the “madman” he’s hunting not unlike his future son? Shame and secrecy seem to be the guiding principles at a time, and in a place, where obedience counted most, and Wei keenly observes how adhering to social norms could drive some people over the edge. Even if Ma Zhe winds up catching the killer, or at least the guy he believes the killer to be, it’s a bitter victory, a source of private anguish despite his public triumph.

Shot by the talented Chengma Zhiyuan (Fires on the Plain) in a vintage style that’s purposely murky and tinged with various shades of mud, the film’s aesthetic echoes its somewhat opaque plotting, which doesn’t exactly make it an edge-of-your-seat affair. But like the investigation itself, the meaning of Only the River Flows gradually finds its focus as the story progresses, leaving the viewer staring into the same abyss the detective does — an abyss that, as in any respectable film noir, stares back at him. 

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