Only the River Flows appeared at the BFI London Film Festival, representing the latest trend of Chinese arthouse cinema.

★★★☆☆ 3.5/5

Following its grand global premiere earlier this year at the Cannes Film Festival, celebrated Chinese director Wei Shujun made his debut in the UK with his third feature film, Only the River Flows, at the London Film Festival (LFF). During the premiere, this rising cinematic talent shared his special connection with the British Film Institute (BFI). While most of Wei’s previous works had received recognition from the BFI, this marked his first film’s inclusion in the highly regarded LFF.

Only the River Flows emerges as a typical film noir crime narrative, police detective Ma Zhe was embroiled in a serial killer case that unfolds in a small old town. As his relentless pursuit of the truth delves deeper, Ma finds himself progressively entangled in the labyrinth of his own delusions.

Adapted from the acclaimed novel “Mistakes By The River” by renowned Chinese author Yu Hua, the film bears the weight of high expectations. Notably, the copyrights to the original novel had been sought by various filmmakers in the past, including the distinguished director Zhang Yimou. However, all previous attempts to bring this story to life on screen had ultimately faltered until now.


Ma, a dedicated police detective (and expectant father), is assigned to a small-town serial killer case. As the investigation progresses, he begins to lose his mind. Continuing Wei’s fascination with unattainable perfection, in this rich and labyrinthine narrative the more the case becomes opaque the deeper Ma delves into it. Along the way, the film reveals important truths about human behaviour and morality, while delicately employing surrealist moods and mise-en-scene. (Hyun Jin Cho)

Shujun Wei

Chunlei Kang, Shujun Wei, Hua Yu

Yilong Zhu, Chloe Maayan, Tianlai Hou

The story starts in a rainy, rural Chinese town in the 1990s. Director Wei did a fantastic job setting a nostalgic and mysterious tone for the film. Instead of referring to specific films or visual images, he relied on the actors and the filming location themselves to present the unique aesthetic. He used 16 mm film to give the movie a grainy 90s feel, and the constant rain adds to the mood.

The great visual design draws us into the story, following Ma Zhe as he investigates a serial killer case. However, be careful not to get too caught up in finding the real killer, or you might feel as obsessed as Ma Zhe. After finishing the film, I realise that this is more than just a crime mystery. The serial killer is just the cover of the book, what’s really fascinating are the stories behind the victims. An old, lonely widow, a couple in unrequited love, and a cross-dresser suffered from miscarriage of justice. They’re all outsiders in society and tragically step into “the river of death”.

One intriguing aspect that caught my attention was the film’s use of the symbols of cinema and theatre. During that era, many cinemas were closed due to a lack of audiences. In response, the police department decided to repurpose the vast spaces of these theaters to work on their crime cases. The film cleverly added cinematic elements into its narrative, with scenes involving the cinema’s breakdown, the falling theatre sign, a burning camera, and a surreal dream sequence projected onto the temporary police office’s screen. It should be the director’s intention to set the stage within an abandoned cinema theatre. These modifications not only create a captivating mise-en-scène but also underscore Wei’s attention for Chinese cinema.

If you’re seeking a thrill mystery with a unique neo-noir aesthetic, “Only the River Flows” is a film for you. The film was just presented with Best Film in the Fei Mu Awards at this year’s Pingyao International Film Festival (PYIFF). It was released in Chinese cinemas on 21st Oct.