BFI LFF 2023: Only the River Flows (2023)

Only the River Flows is a scintillating Chinese neo-noir, the third film directed by Wei Shujun.

Down By China

by Alexa Dalby

Only the River Flows

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

Only the River Flows is a Chinese neo-noir set in the 1990s, in that liminal period between the end of the Cultural Revolution and that country’s future national embrace of consumerism and capitalism. The film is a beautifully framed, intriguing adaption of the avant-garde novella Mistake by the River by Yu Hua.

In rural China in 1995, the spirit of collectivism still lingers, with its pressures on the individual to conform to the community. It is evidenced by the hearty team-building efforts of the ping-pong-playing police chief (Tianlai Hou). And the country village itself is in transition as the bulldozers from building works tear down apartment blocks and leave them semi-derelict for children to play cops and robbers in. The setting of 1995 is retained in the film to allow for the limitations of the technology of the time.

The muddy brown shadows of the colour palette, shot on 16mm film, signal a darkly noir atmosphere. The surrounding countryside is ruined. The river bank is a muddy, grassy field and the ground is soggy with the nonstop, torrential Bladerunner-ish rain.

Police detective Ma Zhe (played by heart-throb Zhu Yilong, Lighting up the Stars) investigates, first of all, the murder of the utilitarianly named Granny Four. Everyone in the village assumes the killer is the unnamed mentally challenged man she looked after, who they all call politically incorrectly “the madman”, and an arrest is made. The crime appears to be solved and finished with.

Then unexpectedly the bodies start to mount up. Symbolically, Detective Ma has to move his police office to the stage in a disused cinema while he looks on at the activity going on in it from a seat in the stalls.

Ma starts to unravel: as he investigates the serial killings he uncovers hidden secret absurdities in seemingly ordinary villagers. Although Ma’s pre-investigation character is not developed, a subplot involves his marriage and the baby his wife (Chloe Maayan, Long Day’s Journey into Night) is expecting.

Only the River Flows is involving, brilliantly visual and tantalisingly ambiguous. It is director Wei Shujun’s third film, all of them selected for Cannes, after Striding into the Wind and Ripples of Life and it premiered in Un Certain Regard at 2023’s Cannes Film Festival. Wei has the seeds of wonderful filmmaking in him and what he does will be worth waiting for, but it may take his next film for him to develop. Only the River Flows feels like a fascinating stepping stone along his path, if he can continue. I wonder how much of Only the River Flows‘ ambiguity is due to his direction or to the source novella.

Interestingly, another of Yu Hua’s novels, set during the Cultural Revolution, was adapted in 1994 by great director Zhang Yimou – a mordant memoir titled in English To Live.

Only the River Flows premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and premieres in the UK at the BFI London Film Festival on 5 October 2023.

Set in the 1990s, Banpo Town, rural China. A woman’s body is found by the river. Ma Zhe (Zhu Yilong), Chief of the Criminal Police, heads up the murder investigation that quickly leads to an obvious arrest. His superiors hurry to congratulate him and urge him to close the case and move on, but several clues push Ma Zhe to delve deeper into the hidden behaviour of his fellow citizens.

Based on a short story by Yu Hua, the film is about a homicide detective investigating a series of murders in a rural village. Only the River Flows is directed by up-and-coming indie Chinese filmmaker Wei Shujun, director of the films Striding Into the Wind and Ripples of Life previously. The screenplay is written by Kang Chunlei and Wei Shujun, adapted from Yu Hua’s novel titled “Mistake by the River“. Produced by Xufeng Huang.