EmptyA heterosexual man hired by a woman to spy on her husband's homosexual liaisons becomes seduced by his subject of reconnaissance in "Spring Fever," Lou Ye's artistically uneven, emotionally strained but at times sullenly poetic depiction of a sexually confused love pentangle.
The first half intriguingly depicts the characters' various stages of secrecy, denial and bewilderment. However, the second half lapses into dramatic impasses as Lou gets distracted by pretentious literary allusions.
Shooting secretly despite his five-year ban on filmmaking by Chinese authorities, Lou's work will straddle both the gay film circuit and the usual European art house channels through the experienced marketing of French co-producer Rosem Films and international sales group Wild Bunch.
Lou's treatment of a supposedly taboo subject in China and its particular social context neither shocks nor surpasses such seminal works as "Lan Yu" and "East Palace, West Palace." The sex scenes are a tame shadow of China's cult queer auteur Cui Zi'en's underground homoerotica.
The film opens promisingly with evocations of moist sensuality: a pristine shot of a drizzling water lily in a pond fluidly shifts to two men on the road. They get frisky while peeing over a bridge and promptly make passionate love in a hut, while outside the rain pelts a water lily in a trough. Later, they walk in the woods, and a man crosses their path.
In flashback, the man is revealed to be Luo Haitao (Chen Sicheng), hired by Lin Xue to investigate her husband Wang Ping's infidelity. This leads to Wang's breakup with both Lin and his boyfriend Jiang Cheng (Qin Hao). While tailing Jiang to a gay club, Luo is drawn into an ambiguous companionship with him that unsettles his girlfriend, Li Jing (Tan Zhuo). They form a menage a trois similar to that among Jiang, Wang and his wife.
Compared to Lou's half-baked attempt at fusing sexuality with politics in "Summer Palace," this film is an improvement as it generates intensity through the intimacy among its minimalist cast while offsetting them against an authentic social backdrop.