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Going Through the Motions

September 28th, 2010 (11:10 pm)

© 2010
D. Gordon

While I've seen a lot of Chinese movies, I hadn't heard about Lou Ye before, and I'm not sure why. Chinese film gained international recognition with directors such as Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige (not to mention actress Gong Li), who took Western audiences beyond the martial arts ghetto with films like Ju Dou, Farewell My Concubine, and Raise the Red Lantern, so that the phrase "Chinese film" doesn't even bat an eye in the West. While Lou technically falls in the generation of filmmakers succeeding Zhang and Chen, he's been active for the last 15-20 years. He's been around, I've been around, but for whatever reason, we haven't crossed paths. Well, until now: the situation has been remedied.

Lou's sixth film, Spring Fever, starts with a suspicious wife and the amateur photographer she hires to trail her husband. It turns out her hunch was right, and her husband has been cheating; however, the resulting fallout is deeply colored by the fact that the affair was with another man. At the same time, the photographer finds himself pulled into events until he, the “other man,” and the photographer's girlfriend end up on a road trip in an uneasy threesome.


from Festival de Cannes website


Although this might sound like high soap, it's anything but. It's not a matter of white or black, of long-suffering spouses and dramatic poses. There are no real heroes or villains among these characters – or maybe the real villain is the time and place that the characters move through, which force Wang Peng into a marriage he might never have freely entered; leave Jiang Chen, the "other man," unable to fight for what he truly wants; and make Luo Haitao, the photographer, at least curious about this world he's observing. The women are trapped as well: Lin Xue, Wang Peng's wife, wants the marriage that society and tradition had always assured her was rightfully hers; and Li Jing, Luo Haitao's girlfriend, is looking for Prince Charming. They both show glimpses of interesting stories in their own rights, although Lou unfortunately never fully develops them; in fact, Lin Xue devolves into The Hand of Fate by the end.

A number of reviewers have criticized the film on several fronts, and it's true it has obvious faults. First, Lou shot the film using digital stock, which blurs and darkens some scenes so much that it's difficult to see in places. The probable reason for that, as romantically unlikely as it may sound, is guerrilla filmmaking: Lou Ye is currently under a filming ban imposed by the Chinese government (he reportedly claims it's for violating technical standards, although he's gotten into trouble before), so this film was shot as a foreign production, much of it on the fly in the streets of Nanjing. However, the less-than-perfect cinematography isn't a complete minus; the digital look actually gives an air of detachedness to the story, so that Wang Peng and Jiang Chen's trip to the country has the graininess of an old photograph, a look much like the memory it will become, while Jiang's bender through his old clubbing haunts takes on the alcoholic haze he's swimming through. The digital video doesn't always work, and sometimes the murkiness is just murky. But for all that, the camera work contributes to the story. It has a place in the film.

The storyline also becomes confusing in spots, a problem for a film that won Best Screenplay at Cannes. There is an underlying narrative, but basic confusion about who is doing what when muddies the waters, so that multiple viewings might be needed. The first time through you might not catch that Jiang Chen is so attuned to Wang Ping that the true end of their relationship is almost exactly tied to the first time he has sex with Luo Haitao. You also might miss that factory owner Mr. Ming is more than a boss / father figure to Li Jing. And it might not be clear that the very first scene is actually a flashback; the first part of the film explains how the characters got to that point. Maybe the confusion underscores the limitations of subtitles; a second viewing cleared up many of the questions the first raised (although I can't describe how without even more spoilers than I've already given).

But it also might be that the Western press on this movie misleads and misinterprets a good part of the story.

Yes, there is a road trip with three of the characters, but it's not exactly a never-ending bacchanalia; it's more a journey of three souls joined by circumstance, trying to heal themselves by papering over the mistakes they've made to this point - and not really succeeding. And yes, Luo Haitao is key to the plot, and Luo Haitao is the bridge linking several other characters, but Luo Haitao is not the focus of the film. It's Jiang Chen, the trajectory of his narrative, and the fact of and fallout from his relationship with Wang Peng, that form the emotional heart of this movie. Luo Haitao, in the end, merely bears witness to it.

It's telling that Jiang Chen says, "I missed the love that was my destiny." By the end of the film, he ends up paired with a friend, in a mindless job, having perfunctory sex. Any dream he might have had of a life with the person he loves is just not one he'll be able to realize - and it's not likely that any of them will.

And that I think is the whole point. Spring – especially the spring of love – is a time of promise, when almost anything can happen; but like everything else, spring comes to an end. Maybe with the end of spring comes the end of hopes and dreams, and we're faced with the detritus that we refer to as adulthood, marking time until we die.

Even with its clear faults, the film still has something to say about being human in a certain time and place. I see why the film was honored at Cannes. It's worth a closer look.