Volume 23, Number 15 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | August 18 - 24, 2010
Defiant yet salable homoeroticism
Directed by Lou Ye
In Mandarin and Cantonese with English subtitles
IFC Center, 323 Sixth Ave.
at W. Third St.
BY STEVE ERICKSON
A cynic could say that Chinese director Lou Ye has used his frequent run-ins with his country’s censors to compensate for his films’ flaws. His previous film, “Summer Palace,” included explicit sex — more than I’ve ever seen in a mainland Chinese film — and references to the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. It screened at Cannes in 2006 without permission from the Chinese government. Consequently, they banned him from making films for five years.
Ye found a way around the ban, financing “Spring Fever” with money from France and Hong Kong. He was obviously going for a raw look here, but the results bear the scars of a low budget. Whatever the foreign production money was used for, it didn’t go toward lights or high-quality video cameras.
Set in the city of Nanjing, “Spring Fever” doesn’t waste time before getting down to sex — between Wang Ping (Wu Wei), who’s married, and his male lover, Jiang Cheng (Qin Hao). His wife Lin Xue (Jiang Jiaqi) has hired a private investigator (Chen Sicheng) to follow him. The detective takes photos of the two men together. Later, Wang, Jiang, and Lin have dinner together, during which Jiang pretends to be Wang’s college buddy. Although Lin knows the truth about their affair, she goes along with the charade.
Things go badly when Wang finds out he’s been followed. He slaps Lin, and in the aftermath of a screaming match at home, she confronts him at work. The story rapidly becomes more complicated as the detective grows attracted to his target.
One could make a parallel between independent Chinese directors like Ye and the American mumblecore movement. On the surface, it’s an odd comparison, as Ye owes a lot to filmmakers like Wong Kar-wai and Hou Hsiao-hsien, whose best work seemed to have its finger on the pulse of modernity. Mumblecore tends to be a lot more aimless and reliant on dialogue than “Spring Fever,” which is full of dramatic events but also includes long stretches of silence. However, they both have a tendency to settle for genuine artlessness in a quest for reality. Like his American counterparts, Ye mistakes a handheld camera for the eye of truth and settles for bland performances.
“Summer Palace” offered an intriguing look at Chinese student life in the late ’80s, but it was awkwardly edited and badly paced. “Spring Fever” suggests that Ye has a tendency to create stories just complex enough to lie beyond his ability to tell them coherently. The narrative of “Spring Fever,” which gets lost amidst muddy cinematography, aims to describe a spiral of desire; Ye has cited François Truffaut’s “Jules and Jim,” which focused on a two-man, one-woman relationship, as inspiration.
When Ye leaves dingy interiors behind, “Spring Fever” is often seductive. A ten-minute sequence in the middle serves as an introduction to Nanjing’s nightlife, including drag acts and punk bands. The film becomes visually attractive when it captures bright lights, but I suspect a documentary on Nanjing, with no narrative pretext, would have been more interesting.
Ye has made a genuinely homoerotic film. Although he’s heterosexual, he sexualizes his male actors’ bodies far more than the film’s actresses. He might have a bright future in softcore porn. However, “Spring Fever” seems intended to sell an exotic vision of gay Chinese life — just familiar enough to be accessible, but different enough to be tantalizing — to Western audiences. Given his history of censorship, which began in 1994 with his first film, one can hardly blame him for looking outside China for his audience. “Spring Fever” will reach his homeland only on bootleg DVDs.
One hopes that by his next film, Ye will have found a way out of the narrative and visual murk of “Summer Palace” and “Spring Fever.” The talent evident in his earlier films is rapidly being squandered.