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CANNES — A 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 in spite of his 5-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 seminal works like “Lan Yu” and “East Palace, West Palace.” The sex scenes, duskily lit in Lou’s characteristic style, and shot with a foggy, grainy texture, are a tame shadow of China’s cult queer auteur Cui Zi’en’s underground homo-erotica.
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 schoolteacher Lin Xue to investigate her husband Wang Ping’s infidelity. This leads to Wang’s breakup with both Lin and his boyfriend Jiang Cheng (Hao Qin). While tailing Jiang to a gay club, and seeing him sing in drag, Luo is drawn into an ambiguous companionship with him which unsettles his girlfriend Li Jing (Tan Zhuo). They form a menage a trois similar to that between Jiang, Wang and his wife, that also recalls the romantic spirit of “Jules et Jim.” The mood is marred by an ugly twist and downbeat end.
The visual virtuosity of Lou’s earlier films appears in fleeting moments. The elegiac score by Iranian composer Peyman Yazdanian blends well with synthesized Chinese ethnic music to imbue the opaque performances, and the indistinct Nanjing suburban setting with a lyrical quality.
Compared with his half-baked attempt at fusing personal sexuality with political history (Tiananmen Square) in “Summer Palace”, this film is a considerable improvement as it generates intensity through the extreme intimacy among its minimalist cast (accentuated by restless closeups and deliberately asymmetrical compositions) while offsetting them against an authentic social backdrop.
The references to Yu Dafu, a 1930s Chinese equivalent of D.H. Lawrence, will seem oblique to a Western audience (the Chinese title comes from his novel “Night of Drunken Spring Breeze”).
Festival de Cannes — Competition
Sales: Wild Bunch
Production companies: Rosem Films/Dream Factory HK
Cast: Chen Sicheng, Qin Hao, Tan Zhuo, Wu Wei, Jiang Jiaqi
Director: Lou Ye
Screenwriter: Mei Feng
Producers: Sylvain Bursztejn, Nai An
Director of photography: Zeng Jian
Production designer: Peng Shaoying
Music: Peyman Yazdanian
Costume designer: Wang Tao
Editor: Robin Weng, Zeng Jian, Florence Bresson
No rating, 117 minutes
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