Cannes 2023 review: Only the River Flows (Wei Shujun)

“While the film has too many loose ends and a convoluted plot, just for its tone alone Only the River Flows is worth a watch.”

Despite being in the early stages of his career, Chinese director Wei Shujun is no stranger to the Croisette. While his first film Striding Into the Wind never actually screened there because of the pandemic, it did receive the Cannes Label. One year later, his second effort Ripples of Life was shown in the Quinzaine. And now he is back in the Official Selection with his third work Only the River Flows, a neo-noirish detective story based on Yu Hua’s short novel Mistake By the River that leans on mood and loses the plot in its final stretch (or the plot lost this viewer, that’s also possible), but is nevertheless a solid showcase for Wei’s considerable talent, showing a firm grip on mise-en-scène and building suspense.

Somewhere in rural China an old lady is brutally murdered on the river bank, and it’s up to Chief Inspector Ma Zhe to solve the case. The initial suspect is a ‘madman’ (in other words a mentally handicapped man; forgive rural China in the ’90s for being insensitive) who lived with Granny Four, as the woman was called. A tape found in her handbag sets Zhe and his subordinates on a long and winding path though, past femme fatales, cheating men, and a hairdresser eager to offer himself up as the perpetrator. Even when more bodies turn up while the suspect is still in custody, and a wavy-haired woman seen at the scene of the crime still eludes them, Zhe’s superiors are happy to declare the simpleton the killer and close the case. But Zhe feels something isn’t right, and against the will of his boss he continues the investigation. Will it drive him as mad as the suspect, who has escaped and is on the loose?

It rains a lot in Banpo Town, the setting of Only the River Flows, and it dominates the mood of the film together with the muted and intentionally dull colour palette of reddish browns, faded blues, and lots of black. One look and the tone is set: Ma Zhe is knee deep in the metaphorical mud. The noir of it all is strengthened by the melancholy of Yilong Zhu’s central performance (all he is missing is a fedora), and occasionally by Wei’s camera placement. His directorial stamp on the film is distinctive yet not showy, and his exquisite blocking makes Only the River Flows a beautiful film to look at even with the chosen drab colour scheme. In tone the film reminds one somewhat of Diao Yinan’s The Wild Goose Lake, a Cannes Competition title a few years back, though Diao’s film had more spectacular cinematography. Just as much rain though, if memory serves.

Where the film suffers is in its screenplay, also penned by Wei. What initially starts out tightly scripted becomes rambling and scattershot, to the point of incomprehension at the moment of wrap-up. A separate storyline involving Zhe and his pregnant wife, whose unborn child is identified with a genetic disorder that could lead to a stunted mental development, doesn’t really lead anywhere other than giving us a coda at the end of the film that it could have done without. The link of the child’s possible condition to the madman in the police investigation is clear but underdeveloped. Zhe’s assistant Xie is somewhat lazily written as a one-dimensional stooge, only coming to bloom in the final third when Zhe hands over command to him.

While the film has too many loose ends and a convoluted plot, just for its tone alone Only the River Flows is worth a watch. Wei is undeniably a talent, and while being selected in Cannes several times doesn’t necessarily mean quality (there are plenty of examples of filmmakers that Cannes tries to make happen despite their films not being all that good), the film shows him quietly honing his skill, and with the right screenplay the 32-year-old could have a masterpiece in him.