A delivery driver, Mardar, is sometimes hired by a rich man to deliver his daughter, Moudan, to her aunt's house. Over the course of a few years, a relationship develops between the two. Unfortunately, Mardar also has obligations to a criminal organization, and is hired to hold Moudan for ransom. After the bill is paid, Moudan flies into a rage and runs away while Mardar chases her, eventually cumulating in her jumping off a bridge, presumably to her death. Mardar is sent to jail for a few years. When he gets out, he begins searching for Moudan, whom he is convinced is not actually dead. Two more characters get involved in this tragic story: Meimei, a girl who looks exactly like Moudan, and Meimei's boyfriend, the unnamed, unseen narrator.
A smash critical success at the time of its release, many critics compared the twisting, fractured narrative and the gritty, urban decay feel of the city setting to films by Alfred Hitchcock and Wong Kar-Wai, particularly Vertigo and Chungking Express. It won multiple awards at many international film festivals, although Ye was banned from filmmaking by the Chinese government for two years after the film's release due to him screening it without proper permission. It is now authorized in China.
This film contains examples of:
- Am I Just a Toy to You?: After finding out how low a ransom Mardar's criminal organization asked her father to pay, Moudan gives him a massive "The Reason You Suck" Speech about how little she must mean to him and runs away.
- Anachronic Order: The Videographer narrates the whole film, meaning the story begins at the end after all the events have happened.
- Bookends: The film begins and ends with the Videographer lying on a boat as it travels down Suzhou River.
- Destructive Romance: Mardar and Moudan, and how! It's only fitting the film ends with their joint suicide.
- The Faceless: All of the Videographer's scenes are filmed from his point of view, as if we are looking through his eyes. Therefore the audience never sees his face.
- Girlish Pigtails: Moudan sports a pair to show off her childlike nature.
- Here We Go Again!: After Mardar and Moudan's double suicide, Meimei is inspired to disappear as well, leaving the Videographer a note that says "Find me if you love me".
- Identical Stranger: Moudan and Meimei look so much alike that Mardar is at first convinced the latter is the former. In-Universe she's not, but in real life, both characters were played by the same actress.
- Jerk with a Heart of Jerk: Meimei comes across as quite standoffish and rude during her first few appearances in the film, but gradually shows some positive qualities, mainly, that she cares about Maradar's problems and wants a relationship as...uh, romantic(?) with the Videographer as he does with Moudan. However, her true colors come out when she goes insane over Mardar's story, abandons the Videographer, and disappears without a trace in a crazy scheme to see if he can prove his love by finding her.
- The Mourning After: The entire second half of the film concerns Mardar's inability to accept the fact that Moudan is dead and his insistence that she is still alive. By the end, we discover that she is.
- Mythical Motifs: Mermaids for Moudan, seeing as she has a doll of one and tells Mardar right before she jumps off the bridge that she'll come back as one. Meanwhile, Meimei swims in a tank in a mermaid costume for tips in a seedy bar.
- Never Found the Body: After Moudan jumps off the bridge, the police are unable to locate her body and assume her dead, arresting Mardar for accidental manslaughter. It turns out Moudan did survive the fall off the bridge and simply went into hiding. Mardar finds her near the end of the film.
- Skewed Priorities: Once Moudan is released from captivity, she's mad at Mardar...not because he kidnapped her, but because of how low a ransom his criminal organization asked her father for her return.
- Suicide Pact: After Mardar and Moudan find each other again, they drink a full bottle of vodka together before driving his motorcycle off a tall bridge to their deaths.