Credit: Cannes Film Festival
by Michael Sicinski Featured Film

Only the River Flows — Wei Shujun [Cannes ’23 Review]

May 26, 2023

Although his name may be unfamiliar to some, Chinese director Wei Shujun has already made several feature films, including 2021’s Ripples of Life, which also debuted at Cannes. But Wei seems poised for a significant breakout with Only the River Flows. This knotty, complex police drama combines elements from genre masters like Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Bong Joon-ho, but nevertheless displays a highly individualistic sensibility. The story centers on a highly regarded police detective, Ma Zhe (Zhu Yilong), in the rural town of Banpo. He’s been tasked with solving the murder of an elderly woman (Cao Yang). But what at first appears to be an open-and-shut case soon reveals unexpected layers of social dysfunction.

This is a fairly standard noir set-up: that one case that the genius detective couldn’t solve. However, by setting the action in 1995, Wei is able to show just how burdened Ma’s task force is with oversight from the CCP, and the oppressive need for a neat conclusion and the positive PR that would come with it. When Ma voices that he thinks the cops have maybe rushed to judgment, he is told, in no uncertain terms by his boss (Hou Tianlai), to sign off on the paperwork and move on, because “our superiors are watching.”

One notices something quite remarkable about Only the River Flows right off the bat. The first Chinese feature in many years to be shot on celluloid, the film looks very much like an actual artifact of the mid-’90s. Exhibiting the same muted palette and soft lens one sees in early Hou Hsiao-hsien or Jia Zhang-ke films, River exhibits a physicality that feels genuinely oppressive. When one considers that Wei has Ma’s team set their offices up in an abandoned movie palace, it’s evident this director isn’t only interested in the investigative mindset, but also its imbrication with filmmaking — the way cinema and police work are two complementary technologies for managing the populace.

Once it becomes apparent that the wrong man may have been arrested for the old woman’s murder, Ma is forced to battle against his own instincts which, he discovers, are tied to common social prejudices. Is the old woman’s ward, referred to as “the madman” (Kang Chunlei), under suspicion because of his cognitive impairments? Is Xu Liang (Wang Jianyu), the hairdresser, actually guilty, or is he confessing because he knows his queer sexuality ensures he’ll be framed? These ethical crises only intensify when Ma and his pregnant wife (Chloe Maayan) learn that their unborn son has a high risk of birth defects, which would mark him as another unwanted “other” in a society of rampant xenophobia.

To his credit, Wei offers no easy solutions to these problems — nor to the crime itself. Not unlike Bong’s Memories of Murder or Dominik Moll’s recent French film The Night of the 12th, Only the River Flows examines crime not as a rift in the social fabric, but as the logical outcome of oppression so complete that it tends to elude notice. It’s no secret that Chinese cinema has suffered artistically under Xi Jinping’s regime, even as it has reaped truckloads of money. Only the River Flows provides a very welcome sign of life.

Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 21.