1990s, Banpo Town, rural China. A woman’s body is found by the river. Ma Zhe, Chief of the Criminal Police, heads up the murder investigation that leads to an obvious arrest. His superiors hurry to congratulate him, but several clues push Ma Zhe to delve deeper into the hidden behaviour of his fellow citizens.
“In a seamy offbeat world englobing the gleaming surfaces of Park Chan-wook’s terrific “Decision to Leave”, all scuzzed-up and grimy and the Diao Yinan’s “Black Coal, Thin Ice” with seams of absurdist dark comedy, Wei Shujun’s inventive riff on Asian-noir gives the expanding subgenre something its Chinese contributions often lack: a pitch-black sense of humor. Like the greatest genre exponent, Raymond Chandler, Wei cares less about logistics than about mood in this rainy, grainy movie (DP Chengma shoots on film in low light, giving the images a lovely dirty texture), lending the film in a cool retro vibe and a schlocky Brian De Palma-style opening, Humanizing quirks and flourishes abound, providing profundity to this touchingly melancholic portrait of small-town desperation.”
“An enigmatic, progressively more engrossing noir directed by Wei Shujun, structurally inventive, if not downright format-twisting. Feels like it’s coming straight at the audience from the time in question – a post-Mao, mid-Deng Xiaoping reforms Southern China. While ostensibly a noir, it is a reminder of the alternative narrative perspectives and cinematic sophistication that have moved [Chinese] cinema forward in the past. This nimble, opaque work could have sat well in Cannes Competition. The cinematography is genuinely star-making.”
“A film noir that’s so vintage it comes wrapped in crackling celluloid and old cassette tapes. Written and directed by Wei Shujun, the movie is a puzzle-like homage to the noir genre itself, with echoes of Jean-Pierre Melville, Chinatown and Memories of Murder. Portraying Chinese society before the recent economic boom and in the wake of the Tiananmen Square protests, at a time when citizens lead repressed lives of quiet desperation. Wei and co-writer Chunlei Kang adapted their script from a novel by Yu Hua, filling the film’s early scenes with bits of observant social dramedy. Shot by the talented Chengma Zhiyuan (Fires on the Plain) in a vintage style that’s purposely murky and tinged with various shades of mud, the film’s aesthetic echoes its somewhat opaque plotting. Like the investigation itself, the meaning of Only the River Flows gradually finds its focus as the story progresses, leaving the viewer staring into the same abyss the detective does — an abyss that, as in any respectable film noir, stares back at him.”
The Hollywood Reporter
“Wei is poise for a significant breakout with this knotty, complex police drama combines elements from genre masters like Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Bong Joon-ho. The first Chinese feature in many years to be shot on celluloid, looking 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. 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.”
In Review Online
“As pleasing on the eye as it is rich with symbolism, the film unfurls like a traditional thriller, but Wei’s interests lie more in narrative subterfuge and the shadows of film noir. One of the only recent Chinese productions to be shot on celluloid, and also one of the most visually entrancing at this year’s festival: late nights and black leather jackets, dark waters and even murkier pasts. It is a mystifying gem. One of the best films at Cannes 2023.”