Imagine the gleaming surfaces of Park Chan-wook’s terrific “Decision to Leave” stripped of romance, all scuzzed-up and dirty. Imagine drilling down via Diao Yinan’s Berlin-winning “Black Coal, Thin Ice” and discovering sudden seams of absurdist darkish comedy. You are actually someplace within the seamy offbeat world of “Only the River Flows,” director Wei Shujun’s creative riff on Asian-noir that offers the increasing subgenre one thing its Chinese contributions usually lack: a pitch-black humorousness.
Wei has been laying declare to the title of laid-back joker in China’s new-gen pack since debuting with affable slacker comedy “Striding into the Wind” in 2020 (a range in 2020’s canceled Cannes competition) and following it up with autoreflexive filmmaking satire “Ripples of Life.” Now he brings his wry sensibilities to bear on this murdery mindbender, which he adapts, with a wholesome disdain for boring stuff like “linear plotting” and “resolution,” alongside Kang Chunlei, from a brief story by postmodernist writer Yu Hua.
Like the best style exponent, Raymond Chandler, Wei cares much less about logistics than about temper. And so his wet, grainy film (DP Chengma shoots on movie in low mild, giving the photographs a beautiful soiled texture) appears and feels as hardboiled as its hero: a tattered idealist trapped within the amber of circumstance and character, struggling futilely in opposition to a destiny that lies in anticipate him like a knife-wielding maniac.
A portentous opening title quotes Albert Camus: “I have made myself destiny. I have assumed the foolish and incomprehensible face of the Gods.” But good-looking, cynical police detective Ma Zhe (Yilong Zhu) doesn’t look particularly silly and his face extra intently resembles Gregory Peck’s. It’s the early Nineties (which lends the movie a cool retro vibe), in rural Banpo Town. And as we’ve simply seen in a schlocky Brian De Palma-style opening, full with sufferer turning to the digital camera because the shadow of the assailant bears down, a lady has simply been killed on the river’s edge. Known solely, with droll Chinese pragmatism, as Granny Four, the lady was one thing of a recluse, however had lately taken below her wing a homeless native, bluntly nicknamed “Madman” (Kang Chunlei). It’s not onerous to guess the place suspicion for the slaying instantly lies.
But there are different clues, notably a purse discovered close to the physique that accommodates a cassette tape of music, finally found to have a recorded voice message hidden in one of many tracks. Through intelligent detective work — and there’s sufficient of this to recommend Ma Zhe is fairly good at his job, even when his boss is extra taken with ping-pong and his callow junior officers are distracted by internecine flirtations — they hint the supply of the voice to a younger lady having a covert affair with a poetry instructor. He in flip leads them to a neighborhood hairdresser (Wang Jianyu), who complicates issues with a sudden confession. Meanwhile the parallel pursuit of Madman begins to have odd echoes in Ma’s personal life, as his pregnant spouse Bai Jie (Chloe Maayan) discovers their unborn child has a genetic dysfunction that will result in psychological incapacity.
Witnesses and suspects multiply and dwindle, via additional murders, suicides and disappearances, and Ma’s maintain on actuality begins to falter. There’s a police-school certificates he can’t discover and a jigsaw puzzle he sabotages that’s in some way accomplished. Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” performs so usually on the soundtrack that it begins to really feel just like the film has an earworm. And there are maddening glimpses of Madman, who turns into an avatar for this complete elusive movie in being ridiculous and inexplicable and eternally simply out of attain, turning down some inky alleyway simply up forward, and disappearing. Those who like their mysteries clearly solved, beware.
Were it not for the sly, eccentric wit that Wei brings to the perimeters of just about each scene, the ethical and literal murkiness would possibly change into just too impenetrable to bear. But humanizing quirks and prospers abound, offering no matter profundity this reasonably touchingly melancholic portrait of small-town desperation can muster. Each character is revealed to be their very own little rabbit gap of inconsistencies and private tragedies that will have the whole lot or nothing in any respect to do with the murders. Everyone has secrets and techniques, some foolish, some sinister, however largely simply unhappy: little scabbed-over scratches on these lonely Chinese hearts.