Writer-director Lou Ye's second film, Suzhou River takes as its background the chaotically built-up riverside architecture of factory buildings and abandoned warehouses along the Suzhou River, rather than the glitzy new face of Shanghai.
Though well-received abroad, Suzhou River was not screened in its native China, as Lou Ye was banned from filmmaking for two years after screening his film at the International Film Festival Rotterdam without permission of Chinese authorities.
The story follows the transient lives of four people at the margins of Chinese society. An anonymous videographer (Hua Zhongkai) opens the film with a monologue on the eponymous Suzhou River and love. As the film's narrator, the videographer is nevertheless never seen aside from his hands, as the camera serves as his first-person perspective for the audience. He starts by telling the story of a romance between himself and Meimei (Zhou Xun), a performer at a dive bar in Shanghai. He discusses his love of Meimei, who makes a living putting on a blond wig and mermaid costume and swimming in a large water tank at the "Happy Tavern," and who disappears days at a time, leaving him heartbroken each time.
The videographer then begins relating the story of Mardar (Jia Hongsheng), a small-time crook and motorcycle courier, and Moudan (Zhou Xun), the daughter of a rich businessman, whom Mardar is hired to ferry around town whenever Moudan's father brings home one of his mistresses. During their brief encounters on his motorcycle, Mardar and Moudan fall in love. Unbeknownst to Moudan, however, Mardar has becomed involved in a kidnapping scheme with his former lover Xiao Ho (Nai An), and the criminal Lao B (Yao Anlian). Mardar is ordered by Xiao-Ho and Lao B to take Moudan to an abandoned warehouse while they orchestrate a pickup of the ransom money. The kidnapping goes awry when Lao B betrays and murders Xiao Ho as soon as the money is in hand. Mardar, unaware of these developments, prepares to move the girl when she asks him how much her ransom was. Mardar answers 40,000 RMB. "Am I so cheap?" she screams and runs away. Mardar chases after her only to see her jump into the Suzhou River, apparently to her death. Mardar is then arrested and imprisoned. Moudan's body, however, is never found.
Years later, Mardar returns to Shanghai and resumes his work as a courier, all the while still looking for Moudan. One night, he happens upon the Happy Tavern where he meets Meimei, the videographer's elusive girlfriend. Mardar, convinced she's his lost love, first spies on her in her dressing room and then seeks out the videographer to tell his story. Later, Mardar tells Meimei herself about his affair with Moudan. Humoring him at first, she eventually becomes enamored with his story and takes him to bed. After being beaten one night by the owner of the Happy Tavern, Mardar heads out to the suburbs, where he discovers the real Moudan working in a convenience store. The film ends with the ambiguous death of both Mardar and Moudan, leaving the viewer to decide if it was an accident or suicide. The videographer and Meimei spend one more night together, before Meimei disappears again, leaving a note telling the videographer that if he truly loves her, as Mardar loved Moudan, he will find her.
Critics also saw the film as an homage to Alfred Hitchcock's tale of obsessive love, Vertigo. Indeed Suzhou River's thematic use of water (in this case the Suzhou River) and plot of men obsessed with a woman/women who may not be who she/they say they are point to Hitchcock's earlier film. Even the film's score is said to echo Bernard Herrmann's classic soundtrack to Vertigo. Some critics also saw in Suzhou River elements of another Hitchcock classic, Rear Window, particularly in the Videographer, the film's voyeuristic narrator.
One film scholar sees the film also as an homage to the writer Wang Shuo, the so-called "bad boy" of Chinese literature, particularly in the film's noir-like characters on the margins of society, and the playing with genres.
Ultimately, two review aggregators reflect the film's general reception by western critics. Rotten Tomatoes records that 89% (25 out of 28 reviews) for Suzhou River were positive in content, while Metacritic gave a score of 76 (out of 100, based on 18 reviews), indicating "generally favorable reviews.