Sunday, June 19, 2016

Mark Lee Ping-Bing at MoMA: Eighteen Springs

Many suspect Eileen Chang was snubbed by the Nobel committee due to fear of angering Communist China. After all, she emigrated first to Hong Kong and then to America, having done some translation work for the U.S. Information Service along the way. However, her novels were rather apolitical, focusing instead on universal themes like love, loss, and even more of each. It is therefore rather logical that Hong Kong auteur Ann Hui (one of the most accomplished women filmmakers of any nationality) and Taiwanese cinematographer Mark Lee Ping-Bing would have an affinity for her work. The resulting adaptation of Eighteen Springs (trailer here) appropriately screens as part of Luminosity, MoMA’s retrospective tribute to Lee.

In the serialized novel, the lovers are star-crossed and separated for eighteen years. Chang shortened that span to fourteen years for the bound-up novel, but that still constituted roughly half a lifetime in Republican era Shanghai, as the new title suggested. It was a rough and tumble place, but there were also opportunities for educated men and women to find professional work and maybe fall in love. Such is the case for Gu Manjing and Shen Shijun, a junior manager and an engineer working for one of the city’s widget factories.

Shen is almost painfully shy, but he comes from a well to do family. Gu is also somewhat reserved but comparatively more outgoing. She is also a proper young woman, but her sister is decidedly not. To support their large extended family, Gu Manlu has worked as a ballroom hostess. Supposedly, she never truly did anything untoward in that capacity, but those reassurances have the ring of protesting too much. Regardless, the elder Gu sister will continue to be an issue for Shen’s uptight family if Manjing ever consents to his marriage proposal. Of course, fate and the machinations of family and rivals will conspire to cleave them apart and rather desperate developments will keep them separated and out of communication.

Hui and Lee deliberately tried to emulate the looks of 1930s and 1940s Chinese melodramas, going for an almost dogme-like hazy, dark visual style. Nevertheless, the print might be due for some restorative work, because it looks a little too dim in spots, but never to the point of breaking the film’s spell.

Regardless, Eighteen Springs is an exquisitely romantic tragedy that takes an almost gothic left turn, before bringing it home to a wise and mature resolution. Jacklyn Wu Chien-lien anchors the film in a career performance as Manjing, spanning the complete emotional gamut, but with rigorous discipline and tremendous nuance. Leon Lai tries to keep up as best he can, but he has trouble comparably projecting past Shen’s protective shell. Frankly, Huang Lei often out-shines him as the couple’s mutual friend, Xu Shuhui. However, nobody upstages Anita Mui’s diva-turn as the diva-ish Gu Manlu.

It is a credit to Hui, Chang, Wu, and even Lee that Eighteen Springs always feels like the earnest literary story of a star-crossed couple rather than a melodrama. They are plenty of potentially lurid excesses lurking in the narrative, but the filmmakers and cast keep it all scrupulously grounded and psychologically real. Very highly recommended, Eighteen Springs screens just the one night this Wednesday (6/22), as part of MoMa’s Luminosity.