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Friday, Nov. 12, 2010
Taboo-defying gay film makes Chinese censors' blood boil
Director Lou Ye continues to prove he's one of the more daring directors working in China today with his latest, "Spring Fever." Or perhaps I should say, one of the more daring directors not working in China today, for Lou was placed on the government censors' blacklist in 2006 after his last film, "Summer Palace" — which covered the dual taboos of the Tiananmen Square massacre and hot on-screen sex — was screened at Cannes without official approval.
Lou was banned from filmmaking for five years, a harsh punishment as this was his second "offense." (His debut, "Weekend Lover," earned him a two-year ban.) The presumption of a government that it has the right to decide whether its citizens can or cannot make art is rather astounding, and speaks volumes about the true, Stalinist face of the Chinese regime, which we've all been brainwashed to ignore so that our corporations can take advantage of its cheap, endlessly exploitable pool of nonunionized labor.
But I digress. Lou skirted the ban by shooting surreptitiously in Nanjing and by obtaining funding from France and Hong Kong. "Spring Fever" still can't be released in China, but it has played the festival circuit, where it picked up an award for best screenplay at Cannes, which was perhaps rewarding the filmmakers for persistence more than anything else.
"Spring Fever" is typical Lou territory: that of tempestuous passions, fractured relationships, unattainable loves and cold betrayal; this time with the added frisson of busting another Chinese film taboo by including a frank portrayal of a same-sex relationship. The film's not far from the stormy gay romance portrayed in Wong Kar-wai's "Happy Together" (1997), right down to a similar slam-the-car-door-behind-you meltdown on a highway. Lou shares Wong's preference for mood and melancholy over plot and action, though without the lustrous cinematography of Christopher Doyle, the proceedings in "Spring Fever," shot in dim digital video before transfer to film, feel rather grimmer.
The story follows two interlocking love triangles: The first involves Wang Ping (played by Wu Wei), a closeted gay bookstore owner who's carrying on a furtive affair with Jiang Cheng (Qin Hao), a slightly flamboyant travel agent who has a taste for Shinjuku 2-chome-style drag bars where he can sing karaoke in women's clothes. Wang is married, though, and his suspicious wife (Jiang Jiaqi) hires a young photographer/grifter, Luo Haitao (Chen Sicheng), to spy on her husband. When Haitao comes up with some incriminating photos, Ping is confronted by his histrionic wife, and it all ends badly.
Cheng moves on, and soon finds himself pursued by Haitao, who finds himself attracted to the older man despite having a girlfriend, Li Jing (newcomer Tan Zhuo), who isn't eager to share her man. Jing works as a seamstress making counterfeit brand goods, and when the police raid her factory, she is entrusted with a bag of cash to safeguard. As is usual in the movies, she takes the money and runs, in a threesome with Haitao and Cheng. This too does not end well.
"Spring Fever" does a good job of showing the paranoia surrounding closeted gay life in modern China, and also the eternal dilemma of thinking one can manage two lovers at once. It's less successful in ascribing motivations to its characters, particularly the enigmatic Haitao; a karaoke bar scene where Jing and Cheng sing reveals more through their choice of songs than anything they say throughout the film.
Lou has a wonderful way with advancing his story obliquely, one scene flowing into the next with little explanation, and it's only after some time that you begin to sense the connections and significance of each moment. This was perhaps best developed in his films "Suzhou River" (2000) and "Purple Butterfly" (2003) — the latter being a near masterpiece — and while "Spring Fever" continues this style, it feels a bit more scattered, lacking the precise focus of the earlier films' narrative arcs.
One gets the feeling that what pisses off the Chinese authorities so much is less Lou's focus on sexuality and passion as such, and more his insistence on the primacy of individual feelings and rejection of group identity. The idea that who you're sleeping with is ultimately more important a matter to most people than the needs of the state or society is one entirely foreign to the totalitarian mindset. Lou has made comments in the past, trying to reassure the state censors by saying they have nothing to fear from his films; I'm not so sure.