Shogun Wei Serial Killer – The Hollywood Reporter
A very vintage film noir that comes wrapped in cracked celluloid and old cassette tapes, Only a river flows (It’s Biande Cuo Wu) follows an obsessive detective’s long and elusive search for a serial killer in provincial China in the 1990s, and its impact on a small town with many secrets lurking beneath the surface.
Written and directed by Shujun Wei (Stepping into the wind), the film is less a thriller than a puzzle-like homage to the noir genre itself, with echoes of Jean-Pierre Melville, Chinatown And Memories of the murder. But more importantly, it is a portrait of Chinese society before the recent economic boom and in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square protests, at a time when citizens lived repressed lives of quiet desperation.
Only a river flows
A retrograde puzzle that turns in on itself.
A few of these are unraveled by Ma Zhe (Yilong Zhu), the lead detective in his town’s criminal investigation unit, which has been relocated, in true-movie fashion, to an abandoned movie theater, with Ma Zhe’s office in the projection booth. (Setting is similar 21 Jump Streetwith a cinema replacing the church.)
It’s an apt setting for a story set in the pre-digital age, when technology was still mostly analog, and photographs or audio recordings were things you could manipulate with your hands. These two mediums would provide a key clue during Ma Zhe’s search for a murderer who has been stalking the local riverbanks, leaving many victims in his path, including an old woman, a miserable 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 gruesome murders, is rather light. Ma Zhe’s crew from Keystone Kops would rather flirt or play table tennis than do any real police work, and the film’s first scenes are peppered with bits of remarkable social drama.
But as the investigation progresses, Ma Zhe’s obsession grows. He tracks down the prime suspect, known only as “The Madman”, who bonds with the first victim and continues his escape. He follows other clues that lead him to inadvertently uncover the hidden lives of his community – whether it be an illicit affair between two hair lovers, or a hairdresser trying to hide his identity from the public.
If the multiple kill in Only a river flows She’s the one who keeps the story going, ultimately acting like MacGuffins that uncover something deeper and darker in mid-’90s 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 derailed, Ma Zhi fears and ashames what is to come: is the “madman” he is chasing no different from his future son? Shame and secrecy seem to be the guiding principles in a time and place where obedience is most important, and Wei notes with interest how adherence to social norms can push some people over the edge. Even if Ma Zhe ends up catching up with the murderer, or at least the man who thinks the murderer is a bitter victory, a source of private anguish despite his public triumph.
He was called talented Chengma Zhiyuan (fires in the plain) in an intentionally vague vintage style mixed with various shades of slime, the film’s aesthetic echoes its somewhat murky plotline, which doesn’t exactly make it unparalleled. But like the investigation itself, make sense Only a river flows It gradually finds focus as the story progresses, leaving the viewer staring into the same abyss as the detective—an abyss staring back at him, as in any respectable film noir.