People are innately intrigued with murder mysteries and the reasonings behind such violent and heinous acts. It’s human nature to want to discover the truth, such desires are channeled through every film noir’s detective and it’s no different here. Having reached endless eyes around the world with the countless detective thrillers of the past, many countries like China have developed their own style of film noir. It’s been a while since a great Chinese noir has hit the big screen, but Chinese director Wei Shujun has reignited Chinese noir with Only the River Flows, a grungy, old-fashioned telling of a serial killer story.
Set in the 1990s China, the film follows Detective Inspector Ma Zhe (Zhu Yilong) who responds to the call of a murder in a nearby village. The first murder victim is “Granny No.4” who was known in the town for adopting a “madman” after the death of her husband. Zhe’s suspicions go straight to the so-called madman, but the investigation becomes more complicated as new information surfaces that point towards other suspects.
Ma Zhe is a hardboiled detective, every action he takes is logical and falls in line with expectations. He is laser-focused on the procedure of cracking down and solving the murders, he has little time for everything else that surrounds him. Although on the surface he seems like an atypical noir lead, it’s revealed that he is deeply troubled and is haunted by the mysterious proceedings of the case. Yilong gives a subtly excellent performance backed by an all-convincing ensemble that brings to life Shujun’s murky, yet refined vision.
Director Shujun finds the perfect blend of mystery, thrills and the more pondering psychological moments. The protagonist, as the case goes on, begins to slowly lose his mind as he starts to lose memories. It’s here where the film is most interesting as he tries to unravel the puzzling serial killings, Zhe turns into a very different version of himself under increasing pressure. He begins as an ordinary, funny yet stern cop with an eye only for the case but becomes bewildered by the winding avenues it takes him down, the vintage and hazy-looking cinematography greatly assists this.
The beautifully dark look of Chengma Zhiyuan’s 16mm cinematography gives the film a non-contemporary feel. It has the imperfection of an 80s or 90s film with shots slightly out of focus and stylisations that seem distant from today’s standards. It’s certainly an ode to the neo-noirs of the time. Zhiyuan’s images can be inventive at times with the picture emphasising the film’s major twists and turns. There is a POV shot from the river showcasing a different angle of a murder that is quite revolutionary, in the context of the film, that comes to mind when reliving and visualising Zhiyuan’s filmic shots that come together in a nightmarish manner. It just so happens that the nightmare sequences are all shot digitally, according to the director, to give a different textual quality to the film’s vintage-looking reality.
Clocking in at under two hours, Shujun’s film is well-paced and works neatly as an exploration of the detective’s psyche whilst also exploring an intriguing murder mystery. The mystery is never truly explained, a lot is left for interpretation. It presents enough detail for it to be enticing and not too over-confused despite the multilayered nature of the “whodunit”-style narrative. As for the thrills, naturally, there are multiple chase scenes as the Detective Inspector hunts down his suspects. Although it must be said that Shujun’s film is a slow burn that relies little on audience engagement through bombastic thrills, he cares far more about delving into the human condition of his characters.
Wei Shujun’s latest is a mysterious and engrossing neo-noir that marks a great return to the subgenre for Chinese cinema. Long gone are the days of Chinese noirs hitting the big screen regularly at festivals worldwide, but Only the River Flows is a surprisingly dark and restrained psychological telling from the Chinese auteur.
This review is from the 2023 BFI London Film Festival.