The poster art for Wei Shujun’s “Only the River Flows,” International Feature Competition contestant of the 59th Chicago International Film Festival, is an imitation of Edvard Munch’s The Scream. The film’s protagonist, Detective Ma Zhe (Yilong Zhu, “Lighting Up the Stars”), replaces the figure in the painting. Contrary to a common misinterpretation, The Scream does not portray a man screaming, but a man hearing a scream. The painting is a peek inside the mind of Munch, who checked himself into a mental hospital following its completion. “Only the River Flows” similarly weighs the madness within the world and oneself.
A woman is found murdered along a river in Banpo Town, located in rural China. Zhe leads the investigation, finding that ends are too easily tied up and arrests too easily made. The murders continue as key witnesses are left in the serial killer’s wake, and Zhe finds himself being twisted and squeezed by mysteries that dare not unfurl themselves. Evidence is examined, and theories are discussed on the stage of Banpo Town’s deserted local cinema, where Zhe’s team has relocated for discretion. Desks are crowded in the dimly lit theater, the events in this setting unfolding like a theatrical play. Cleverly framed camera angles, metaphorical art, dark and ominous spaces, sunken eyes and near-constant clouds of cigarette smoke give “Only the River Flows” all it needs to crawl into the audience’s mind and curl up there as a menacing, intoxicatingly stylish question that begs to be answered.
“Only the River Flows” is shot on 16 mm film, with a moody and hazy atmosphere fit for its neo-noir mystery. The film relies on traditional camerawork that does not go beyond its utility — there are no unnecessary flourishes that distract from the story or its characters. The surrounding architecture functions as a set built for the theater, doing the heavy lifting in commanding the audience’s eye with limited extravagance and space. One could easily compare the style of this film to Bong Joon-Ho’s tale of two detectives in “Memories of a Murder” or Park Chan-wook’s romantic mystery “Decision to Leave,” but “Only the River Flows” accomplishes something inventive and beautiful in a genre so well-known and adored but not often done right.
The film’s quality of familiarity sets it apart from contemporary filmmaking — it feels and looks like it was filmed decades ago, with camerawork of an understated efficiency and subtle eroticism that is reminiscent of the early film noir style. John Alton’s (“An American in Paris”) work as cinematographer on Joseph H. Lewis’s stunning “The Big Combo” comes to mind. However, as “Only the River Flows” progresses, it becomes clear that solving the mystery that plagues Banpo Town is not the objective of the film, unlike its ancestors in the noir genre. Whether this is a misstep in Shujun’s story is subjective, but the film defies the default expectations of the mystery genre by prioritizing artistry over resolution.
Shujun manages a script that is chilling, aching, heartbreaking and, at times, humorous. It oscillates between moments of gritty reality and bizarre dreamscapes. “Only the River Flows” is a pessimistic tale of life and death, spotlighting the misfortunes of life and the inevitable madness that ensues from not reconciling them. When Zhe and his wife (Chloe Maayan, “Lost in Beijing”) learn that their child is at risk of being born with brain damage, Zhe believes that it would be a mercy to terminate the pregnancy and accuses his wife, who is adamant about raising the child, of not considering the child’s feelings. Zhe’s personal life pairs with his concern for the disorder he wishes to rectify in the world, and that begins to bleed into his mind. The often fruitless nature of homicide detective work represents the noble pursuit of justice that is ineffectual in a world where the truth is unyielding — a world the audience recognizes.
As villagers continue dying and reality grows increasingly enigmatic, Zhe descends deeper into mania. The characters come sharper into focus as doomed individuals, and this picture of fatalism is complete. Fault is found in “Only the River Flows” when its ambiguity becomes tedious in its final few minutes — the audience can’t help but feel like the potential to deliver a grand and thrilling ending has been squandered. Any disappointed audience member is a testament to Shujun’s filmmaking, as he turns a gripping mystery with cascading clues into a study of character and unforgiving life. Shujun’s direction and cinematographer Chengma Zhiyuan’s (“Striding Into the Wind”) work meet in a collision of talent, delivering a picture that is both bleak and divine.
Daily Arts Writer Maya Ruder can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org