Only The River Flows – Review

Only the River Flows The 1990s in China was a period of extreme flux. As state-owned businesses and structures began to disintegrate, unemployment and corruption began to seep in. Many eagerly embraced the rise of consumerism but many – especially in rural communities – were left behind. And it is this socio-economic context that envelopes Wei Shujun’s Only The River Flows.

In a rural riverside town, the murder of an old woman (locally known as Granny Four) sparks the notion that there may be a serial killer on the loose. All eyes are on a disturbed young man, whom Granny Four took to live with her and also has his own local nickname – the Mad Man. Police detective and father-to-be, Ma Zhe, is assigned to the case. Whilst everyone else on the force is happy that the “Mad Man” is to blame, he becomes consumed by the murder, questioning his position on the police force, his ethics and his sanity along the way. Based on Yu Mua’s novella Mistake by the River, the film offers an interesting take on the neo-noir cop thriller that has been so successful in contemporary Asian cinema.

As Ma Zhe, Zhu Yilong puts in a convincingly jaded performance. From the offset, it is clear that he is struggling with his “work/life balance”. His wife is pregnant with their first child but it looks likely that they will be born with a disability. The long, relentless hours at his job mean he is temperamental when he should be supportive. As his entire department decamps to a disused local cinema, he plays the case out through a projector, staring at images of crime scenes until he cannot separate photographs from reality. Physically, he becomes more erratic as his grip on the case – and his sanity – starts to loosen. Like him, we as the audience cannot trust what he is seeing. An unreliable narrator is nothing new, but Zhu Yilong is compelling enough that we are drawn into his fate.

As antagonists go, Kang Chunlei’s “Mad Man” feels like nothing more than a spectre at times. He appears in the background of photographs; in Ma Zhe’s hallucinations; in whispered conversations. He is not a threat lurking in the shadows or a violent villain on the run. More than that, you can see Ma Zhe’s panic about the potential of his unborn son every time he is haunted by the presence of this particular ‘killer’. This is one of the most interesting aspects of the film as it sets up an unusual hunter / prey dynamic that seems to oscillate between the two men.

But the effects of previous national politics have their fingerprints all over this film. The police captain (Hou Tianlai) has pressure put on him from local politicians and those higher up the food chain. He wants this case solved in order to keep everyone happy and crime resolution numbers steady. If everyone in the village says it’s the “Mad Man”, then this is the most favourable outcome for all. Again, it’s this extra little layer of context and history that not only gives Only The River Flows a very detailed sense of time and place, but it keeps the plot from veering into standard police drama territory.

The film is shot on 16mm, with Chengma Zhiyuan’s cinematography casting everything in swampy shadows and a murky brown. The rain seems to perpetually lash sideways, giving everything a damp, hunched feel that really adds to the overall mood. The rural village becomes a mud bath, with the police and the locals battling the elements in order to solve the case. Everything feels grimy, laden with something that cannot quite be articulated.

However, whilst Only The River Flows is incredible to look at and does benefit from interesting performances and historical context, where it does fall down is the pacing. Despite not even clocking up two hours’ worth of run time, it can, at times, feel like a bit of a slog. This is strange Only the River Flows and disappointing, given that this is a film about a serial killer and a detective trying to piece together crime scenes whilst also losing his sanity. There are moments of dark comedy – and one truly shocking, ‘out of nowhere’ death – and the film relies on these little jolts to stop things from grinding to a halt. Perhaps this is done purposefully, to reflect the reality of small town police work, but it doesn’t quite translate as well as it should.

Overall, fans of contemporary Asian neo-noir will find lots to appreciate within Only The River Flows. The grainy, shadowy visuals and the lead performance are certainly enough to make it worth the watch. The pacing issues overshadow what should be a great film but this is an interesting enough third outing from director Wei Shujun.

Only The River Flows is screening at the Glasgow Film Festival. Get your tickets here.

Mary Munoz
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