Saturday, September 04, 2010

Lou Ye’s Spring Fever

Lou Ye’s first film was censored by the Chinese government. His next film was banned outright and he was formally barred from filmmaking for two years. A subsequent film would earn Lou another five year term of banishment that has yet to expire, but he simply produced his latest film rebel style, completely outside the Chinese system, with foreign financing and distribution. After directly referencing the Tiananmen Square massacre in Summer Palace (the film that earned his five year prohibition), it seems like Lou deliberately sought out the only third rail he had yet to address on film: homosexual relations in China. After its brief American theatrical run, Lou’s Spring Fever (trailer here) is now available on DVD.

It would grossly overstate matters to call Luo Haitao an investigator. He is really just an unemployed sneak, hired by the jealous Lin Xue to tail her husband. Her suspicions prove correct. Wang Ping is indeed having an affair with Jiang Cheng—a guy. Not knowing what Lin knows, Wang introduces her to Jiang as a supposed long lost school chum, hoping to have an excuse to keep him around.

That works about as well as you would expect. Especially bitter the other woman is a man, Lin confronts Jiang in his office, making her complaints explicitly clear, costing him mucho face. As a result, Jiang does indeed drop the straying husband, picking up unlikely enough with the ostensibly heterosexual Luo. Once again, Jiang is one third of a love triangle, completed by Luo’s highly vulnerable girlfriend Li Jing.

While refraining from full frontal, Spring’s gay sex scenes do not leave much to imagination. There are quite a few of them too. In fact, they would get decidedly tiresome if they did not represent one big, bold extended middle finger to the Chinese state censors. Just making the film was an act of defiance. Tackling such taboo themes in the process certainly earns Lou considerable credit for guts.

Lou also elicits some memorable performances, particularly from his two women supporting players, oddly enough. As the understandably hurt and resentful Lin, Jiang Jiaqi is riveting in her smack-down scenes with Wang and Jiang. Likewise, Tan Zhuo is oddly affecting as Li, a woman economically victimized by her dodgy boss and emotionally confused by Luo’s new found ambiguity. However, considering how much screen time they have, neither Qin Hao nor Chen Sicheng make much impression as Jiang and his new formerly straight lover, respectively. They are almost like naked props for Lou to mold and objectify as he sees fit.

Still, there is far greater narrative substance to Spring than many of the distinctly unhurried films produced by China’s so-called Digital Generation of independent filmmakers. In fact, there are a number of jarring developments and telling moments, as when Luo first sets eyes on Li’s new boyish bob. There is even an evocative non-diegetic soundtrack from Iranian film composer and classical pianist Peyman Yazdanian, who also scored the fateful Palace and films by Abbas Kiarostami, Jafar Panahi, and Ramin Bahrani.

If nothing else, Spring is certainly proof of Lou’s artistic integrity. It is about as independent as indie filmmaking gets, short of landing in jail like Panahi. While the sexualized content will limit its appeal, it is surprisingly accessible stylistically. A somewhat flawed but still worthy film, Spring has recently been released on DVD and streams on Netflix.