REVIEW: Risky Spring Fever Wins Some, Loses Some
Spring Fever is a work of defiance, for better and worse. Director Lou Ye's sixth film is also his first filmed in violation of a five-year ban on production imposed by the Chinese Film Bureau after the 2006 release of Summer Palace, which dealt directly with the Tiananmen Square rebellion. Shot on the sly in Nanjing, Spring Fever maps two extra angles onto an already unconventional love triangle, frankly inverting the dominant sexual dynamic of the melodrama: Three of the five participants are men, and none of them are that interested in the women.
Over 107 minutes Lou continues upping the ante with diminishing returns, defying, in rough chronological order: traditional expository expectations, the less traditional concept of narrative coherence, his lighting director, the entire philosophy of light direction, and finally the viewer's patience.
The film's opening functions as a strange, seductive overture: Two men are driving on a drizzly, secluded road. We watch the car pull over from a slight distance, and the first words of this sparsely scripted mood piece are spoken: "Let's take a piss." It's an odd moment that signals an as-yet-undetermined level of intimacy between them. When they return to the car the camera comes with, settling between their shoulders in the back seat -- thus acquainted, we have been invited inside. They arrive at a cabin as it really starts to rain, the surroundings lush to the point of overflow. Shortly thereafter the film's second line is spoken, as the men are in the midst of a bout of grappling, Greco-Roman sex: "I love you."
Upon the men's arrival at the cabin the camera retreats into a more tentative, surveillance mode; Lou switches off between front-and-center handheld work and peeping camera techniques throughout, creating a disorienting tension between actual and presumed intimacy. The next scene is a jolt back to Nanjing, where amateur detectives (Chen Sicheng and Tan Zhuo, a couple in the film) are snapping photos of the lovers -- Wang Ping (Wu Wei) and Jiang Cheng (Qin Hao) -- at the behest not of some repressive government operative but of Wang Ping's wife Lin Xue (Jiang Jiaqi).
It is in these early scenes that cinematographer Zeng Jian's camera work is at its most supple and alert: Though they are literally stolen images -- shot without permission in a city where life is rarely shown simply as it is lived -- they feel crafted with a symbiosis of care and urgency in mind. Often the camera moves to anticipate, and then accommodate, a new character in its frame, or follows its subjects' faces as an attentive friend might.
Because of the movie's episodic structure and lack of expository detail, the visuals bear the greatest narrative burden. Initially met and occasionally exceeded, that expectation becomes too great as the lugubrious, self-important melodrama takes on perhaps one angle too many. When the primary affair is exposed, the triangle is reconfigured, with only the haughty, sometime transvestite Jiang in play. Seduced from a telescopic remove, the would-be detective is drawn in by Jiang's cold-fusion magnetism; more anguished, sleeper-hold sex ensues. The new trio try to make it work as desire -- and the film itself -- becomes more and more elusive, elliptical and frustrating.
I would have added atmospheric to that list if I could have actually seen what the hell was going on. Lou seems to think he can transcend mood with a kind of anti-mood, and lets several later scenes play out in near darkness, as if they could sustain themselves on the atmospheric exhaust of those that came before. Not quite. Instead, for minutes at a time, you search almost completely blackened frames for signs of life. They are minutes you are meant to use, perhaps, to contemplate the snippets of Yu Dafu prose that periodically cross the screen. "I don't like wandering," one quote goes. "I've missed the love that was my destiny." Simple, plaintive words that serve mainly to highlight the fussy emotionality that belies Spring Fever's sleek but ultimately hollow exterior.