Chinese Cinema at Cannes: Reviews of Lou Ye’s <i>Spring Fever</i>
Another Cannes has come and gone; reports from my peers who attended were mostly lukewarm about the quality of the films they saw. I thought it would be worth taking a moment to collect a critical consensus on the one Chinese film in this year’s competition line-up, Lou Ye‘s Spring Fever, which went on to win the Best Screenplay Award. Many of you may know that Lou Ye’s previous film Summer Palace, which depicted the Tiananmen Square incident, led to his being banned for five years from making films by the Chinese government following its premiere in Cannes. Lou Ye was able to sidestep this ban by shooting the film undercover as a Hong Kong-France co-production.
Some press dubbed the film “The Chinese Brokeback Mountain” for its frank depictions of same-sex relationships, though in actuality the sexual dynamic is more entangled than that. Quoting Brian Brooks‘ synopsis for IndieWire:
Set in present-day Nanjing, Spring Fever is the story of Wang Ping (Wu Wei) whose wife suspects him of adultery. She hires Luo Haitao (Chen Sicheng) to spy on him and discovers that her husband’s ongoing trist is with a man, Jiang Cheng (Qin Hao). Matters become more complicated when Luo Haitao and his girlfriend Li Jing (Tan Zhou) get entangled in a torrid love affair with Jiang Cheng.
Brooks’ article also has quotes from Lou Ye’s press conference following the Cannes premiere. The entire press conference can be watched at the Cannes website. One quote by Lou which seems to draw a line in the sand as far as the purpose of his filmmaking (as well as many of his generation):
The point of Spring Fever was to portray individual emotions rather than social problems. The individual is more important than the group, but the last time the Chinese talked about individuals was back in the 1920s.
Arya Ponto at Just Press Play has taken the trouble of excerpting from several reviews, mostly from the American press. We’ve excerpted from some others as well. If anyone knows of any Chinese language reviews, feel free to link in the comments section.
Beyond fests (especially gay ones) and the hardcore arthouse crowd, this overlong and very Euro-flavored “Spring” won’t make many B.O. wickets bloom… As Lou has seemingly catered more and more to Euro tastes (and Western sensibilities), his vision and imagination have become progressively more restricted.
– Derek Elley, Variety
A heterosexual man hired by a woman to spy on her husband’s homosexual liaisons becomes seduced by his subject of reconnaissance in Spring Fever, Lou Ye’s artistically uneven, emotionally strained but at times sullenly poetic depiction of a sexually confused love pentangle. The first half intriguingly depicts the characters’ various stages of secrecy, denial and bewilderment. However, the second half lapses into dramatic impasses as Lou gets distracted by pretentious literary allusions.Lou’s treatment of a supposedly taboo subject in China and its particular social context neither shocks nor surpasses seminal works like Lan Yu and East Palace, West Palace. The sex scenes, duskily lit in Lou’s characteristic style, and shot with a foggy, grainy texture, are a tame shadow of China’s cult queer auteur Cui Zi’en’s underground homo-erotica.Compared with his half-baked attempt at fusing personal sexuality with political history (Tiananmen Square) in Summer Palace, this film is a considerable improvement as it generates intensity through the extreme intimacy among its minimalist cast (accentuated by restless closeups and deliberately asymmetrical compositions) while offsetting them against an authentic social backdrop.
– Maggie Lee, The Hollywood Reporter
Borrowing from stories from the 1920s from gifted Chinese author Yu Dafu, director Lou Ye, aided by Zeng Jian’s astonishing camerawork, manages to hit a poignant note with floral imagery in Spring Fever.Lou Ye does delve successfully into more universal subjects such as loyalty, betrayal, and obsession, but an overall triteness undermines their impact. Like the 19thth-century German philosopher Schopenhauer, Yu Dafu saw weeds in any field of flowers. In spite of the beauty of the movie’s lotuses, Lou Ye conveys the writer’s cynicism.
– Howard Feinstein, Screen Daily
There are moments of beauty and happiness along the way, but for the most part this is a not-so-merry-go-round of love and lust, the participants howling at one another and flailing weak fists against hitching chests. Some of it hits home, raw and emotional. Other sequences (a karaoke scene, moony shots of Nanjing) thrum with a tender melancholy. Most of it, though, is boring, nonsensical and off-puttingly convinced of its own worth, with even the rough n tumble f–k scenes sure to arouse yawns. Spring Fever is nowhere near as bad as Lou Ye’s inscrutable 2003 competition entry Purple Butterfly, perhaps, but it’s also nowhere near as good as his acclaimed Suzhou River (2000), a far more engaging film concerned with the same themes – identity, desire, loneliness.
– Jamie Graham, Total Film
I think there’s meant to be a tender love story buried somewhere in all this remote melodrama, but none of the five major characters makes the slightest impression; when one eventually commits suicide, you get the sense it’s mostly just a means of getting the hell out of this boring movie.
– Mike D’Angelo, The A.V. Club
Lou, helped by Zeng Jian’s striking camerawork, captures very well the mood of drift and fragmentation in modern-day urban China. Compelling and messy in equal measure, it’s a cine-letter to the future.
– Sukhdev Sandhu, Daily Telegraph
While Lou Ye does valiantly attempt to showcase a subsection of mainland Chinese life that’s simply not put on screen, he never raises his characters out of their flatly assigned roles, and some, like Luo Haitao’s girlfriend Li Jing, are really just doleful ciphers, their dramas impossible to invest in, a lot of sound, fury and shower scenes, signifying nothing.
– Alison Willmore, IFC.com