Only the River Flows (2023) Cannes Film Festival 2023

May 21st, 2023
Author: Meredith Taylor

Dir: Wei Shujun | Yilong Zhu, Chloe Maayan, Tianlai Hou, Tong Lin Kai | China Drama 102′

Beijing born filmmaker Wei Shujun returns to Cannes three years after his award-winning Striding into the Wind (2020).

You could be forgiven for thinking Only The River Flows was actually made during the 1990s such is the vintage look of the celluloid and its grainy quality, shot by Chengma Zhiyuan (Fires on the Plain). Premiering in this year’s Un Certain Regard sidebar the thriller is set thirty years ago in rural China where a chief of police Ma The (Yilong Zhu) is investigating a series of murders that lead to an early arrest. The victims are a kindly widow, a poet and a rather sweet little boy. But the detective starts to question the decision due the increasingly unusual behaviour of the locals in this riverside backwater.

Written and directed by Shujun Wei, the feature certainly pays homage to the noir detective stories of  the 1950s but what makes it more interesting is its portrayal of China before the economic boom at a time where most ordinary people were still quietly getting on with their humdrum lives in relative obscurity. And Ma The is a case in point. Under the cosh of his superiors, he is forced to suffering in silence and endure grim headquarters in a disused cinema. Home life is not much better, infact he lives in a rather squallid hovel with his wife Bai Jie (Chloe Maayan) who has recently become pregnant with a child who may have a borderline genetic disorder.

Based on a book by Hua Yu, it pictures the police as rather cartoonish characters who would rather be doing anything (such a playing pingpong) rather than tracking down criminals, and there’s dark humour at play here in the script co-written with Chuniei Kang.

The chief suspect is laughingly known as ‘the madman’ but the investigation also throws up some rather squallid little goings on which add texture and context to the thrust of the narrative – the hunt for the serial killer – in this rather scuzzy little corner of China. MT





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