'Spring Tide': Film Review | Shanghai 2019

Courtesy of Shanghai International Film Festival
An unstructured but still intense family drama.

A young Chinese woman is caught between the emotional demands of her mother and daughter in Yang Lina’s take on an all-female dysfunctional family.

Documentarist turned feature filmmaker Yang Lina gets close, almost uncomfortably close, to a daughter, mother and grandmother who live together with distaste, neediness and emotional blackmail in Spring Tide. Upping the ante on the mother-daughter relationship in her Longing for the Rain, which competed at Rotterdam, Yang examines three generations of women who also represent different eras of Chinese history.

While it’s fascinating to eavesdrop on family secrets and see the sparks flying, the film’s complete lack of structure slows it down, and a two-hour series of incidents arrives at no satisfying end point. Spring Tide looks earmarked for festival screenings after its bow in Shanghai competition.

The story is supported by a well-chosen cast headlining Hao Lei, known for her work in several Lou Ye films like Summer Palace, as the 40-ish journalist and single mother Jianbo, forced for economic reasons to share a cramped apartment with her domineering, extroverted mom, played by Hong Kong-Taiwanese actress Elaine Jin Yan-ling. The latter character is a subtle sort of drama queen with major anger management issues.

Completing the threesome is Jianbo’s lively 9-year-old daughter (Qu Junxi), who seems surprisingly well-adjusted given the smoldering resentments around her. As the incidents unfold, the girl appears to be a weapon Granny uses against Jianbo.

There is a man more or less around the house: the grandmother’s “fiance” Zhou, who is played by Li Wenbo as a sensitive, caring fellow in love first with Granny, and secondarily with “the mother of my children.” As he says, he’s not perfect, but his role as a peacekeeper is precious to the equilibrium of the family.

We first meet Jianbo on the job, interviewing a bevy of tearful mothers whose young children have been molested by a teacher. Later, she interviews the suspect at the police station and rather unprofessionally throws her purse at him and slaps his face. This is the most emotion she shows until the last scene of the film. In the presence of her mother, the hostilities are open but Jianbo keeps her mouth shut to avoid a fight. It only spurs her embittered mother to call her “high and mighty” and complain she’s being treated like her daughter’s servant.

Jianbo keeps her private life to herself, especially a moody musician-lover whose bed she shares on occasion. He doesn’t seem too emotionally stable, but she seems to prefer it that way, if only to punish herself. When she gets a prospect of marriage from a normal guy, she gets rid of him with wacky text messages while he’s talking earnestly to her mother. It’s one of the film’s typically funny-painful scenes.

Mom belongs to a patriotic generation and hosts choir rehearsals in her tiny foyer, where old-timers nostalgically sing revolutionary songs about Mao. There is more singing, dancing and drinking in a high school reunion scene, where old classmates jab at Mom about why she divorced her husband. The story that emerges by and by is that he was a sex fiend who got arrested for exposing himself in public, yet in a long closing monologue, Jianbo remembers the same man as a caring father who loved her much more than her mother.

The tables turn, however, when the mother breaks down in tears in front of Zhou’s gentle courtship and speaks of the years of suffering and humiliation she underwent at her husband’s hands. The contrasting performances of Hao (understated, even repressed) and Jin (over-the-top and unreasonable to the point of cruelty) make for good theater, and Yang’s talent is in keeping her actresses on a high level, never dipping into telenovela-style sentimentality.

Worthy of note is the mature performance of young Qu in the role of the daughter Wantig. It is she who closes the film's ambiguously symbolic final sequence with her playful confidence, in what is probably a green light for her generation of Chinese women.

Production company: Shanghai Aimei Film and TV Media Co.
Cast: Hao Lei, Elaine Jin Yan-ling, Qu Junxi, Li Wenbo, Huang Shanghe

Director-screenwriter: Yang Lina
Producers: Li Yaping, Cheng Quinsong
Director of photography: Bao Xuanming  
Production designer-editor: Liao Qingsong
Music: Yoshihiro Hanno
Venue: Shanghai International Film Festival (competition)

124 minutes