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An arthouse anomaly: The rise and resonance of 'Only the River Flows'

Only the River Flows - image courtesy of

Rosemary Mihkelson

In a landscape often dominated by blockbuster spectacles, Only the River Flows emerged as a refreshing anomaly and beacon of innovation in Chinese cinema. Directed by Wei Shujun 魏书钧 and released in October 2023, this neo-noir detective film, set against the backdrop of mid-1990s rural China, captivated audiences and critics alike.

The accolades garnered by Only the River Flows are a testament to its vision – from winning the Best Film award at the prestigious Pingyao International Film Festival to its selection for the Un Certain Regard section of the 76th Cannes Film Festival. Its domestic theatrical release was met with an enthusiastic reception, with an impressive opening weekend box office haul of 146 million yuan ($20 million), a rarity for an arthouse film. The film's total box office is set at an estimated 301 million yuan ($42.1 million), placing it among China’s highest-grossing independent films.

A rapper-turned-filmmaker hailed as “the future of Chinese cinema”, Wei Shujun’s eclectic background equips him with the agility to navigate the evolving Chinese film industry, where adaptability is paramount. His previous films – Striding into the Wind (2020) and Ripples of Life (2021) – have all featured at Cannes. In his third film, Wei ventured into uncharted territory with an adaptation of the short story, Mistakes by the River, by the esteemed Chinese writer Yu Hua 余华. Moving away from conventional narrative structures, Wei immerses viewers in a world of mentalscapes, where details defy easy categorisation.

The film follows a police detective, Ma Zhe, played by Zhu Yilong 朱一龙, whose ordered existence is disrupted by a murder along the riverbank. As the complexities of the case unravel, Ma’s reliance on logic and reason is challenged as his obsession intensifies, leading to a gripping exploration of paranoia. The result is a story that transcends the boundaries of traditional literary adaptation, infusing the narrative with cinematic depth and symbolic richness.

Wei’s construction of cinematic space is central to the film's success, which evokes a sense of disquiet and intrigue. Shot on Super 16mm, the film is gritty and textured, echoing a moral and literal murkiness in every scene. Through subplots and details absent in Yu Hua’s original story, Wei blurs the lines between reality and illusion. In turn, widespread debates on social media were fuelled by the narrative encouraging audiences to draw their own conclusions. “There aren’t many redundant explanations, and it leaves a lot of blank space for interpretation,” reads one of the top comments on Douban 豆瓣电影. “All kinds of details flow slowly like a river, the dream of that land, showing the secrets of each character through the dream. This viewing experience is unprecedented.”

Only the River Flows is not without its risks. In a market accustomed to closed endings and clear resolutions, Wei’s ambiguity could have easily confounded some audiences. Indeed, Chinese arthouse films are traditionally seen as niche and overshadowed by more commercial releases, grappling with the task of achieving mainstream appeal. However, buoyed by the performance of well-known stars such as Zhu Yilong and the endorsement of Yu Hua himself, the film stood poised to broaden its audience and elevate both recognition and box office returns.

As China’s cinematic landscape continues to evolve, Only the River Flows serves as a testament to the power of artistic innovation and daring storytelling. With its bold and uncompromising creativity, the film heralds a new era.



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