Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Lou Ye's SPRING FEVER: difficult and feverish -- but worth wrestling with

Just keeping the characters straight (though most of the males are gay or bi) should present the first big hurdle in viewing SPRING FEVER, the latest half-hidden passion fest from Chinese bad boy Lou Ye. It took TrustMovies a good portion of the film's 107-minute running time to piece together who these people were and what was going on. Post-screening, as he stood and talked with two compatriots about this film -- all of us still struggling to make certain we had our facts correct and with mixed (but much more positive than negative) feelings about the movie -- he realized how taken he had been with Mr. Lou's alternately delicate and deeply-felt creation.   

Still in trouble with the powers-that-be, after earlier no-no's like Weekend Lover (censored), Suzhou River (banned) and Summer Palace (which got this writer/director banished for five years), Lou, shown at left, now tackles homosexuality head-on and comes up with a movie that is difficult, unusual, but very hard to shake, once it's gotten its claws into you. China might want the world to believe (as Israel once asked us to do) that there is simply no homosexuality within its own borders (and even if there were, the state would certainly not countenance it -- no, no, no!), but if we accept Lou as our guide, man-to-man love is all over the place -- closeted, perhaps, with plenty of secret assignations, but also pretty "out there," complete with cross-dressing nightclub performers, trannie bars, the works!

Seemingly shot on the fly, often dark and muddy, the movie features a lot of man-on-man heat, mostly heavy petting ("All that kissing!" as one IFC employee put it at the screening I attended), with some nudity now and then (rear rather than frontal).  What interests Lou (if not, perhaps, you) is the great passion involved here, and the need of the individual to act on it and to have the privacy to do so, at the same time as the state insists on overseeing everything.  This is a conundrum difficult to resolve, and part of the pleasure of the finale, or so it seems to me, is that this individual-against-state situation does at last find some peace and resolution, even if much has to be given up in the process.

The movie begins as a gay twosome, expands to a trio (the wife of one of the men) and then into a quartet, when she hires a photog-
rapher to follow her husband. The photographer has his own girlfriend, though he soon becomes fixated on the unmarried of the two gay men, and so finally the movie is a quintet -- until, sadly, it becomes a quartet again -- of lonely, unsatisfied people frustrated by their own needs, half of which are forbidden by the state.

Beginning with scenes of flowers in the rain and poetic quotes to match, Lou runs the risk of seeming pretentious.  Yet the poetry -- of seasons, insects, flowers and feelings --  begins to take hold in the writing and even in the sub-par visuals.  There's a hypnotic quality to the movie, along with a sadness and melancholy that is finally unshakable.  Spring Fever marks another collaboration, after Summer Palace, with writer Mei Feng (who won, to some disagreement, the Best Screenplay award at Cannes last year).  It is certainly an unusual screenplay, I'll give it that: one that challenges but also rewards.

Guilt, identity, a fluid sexuality, and questions, question, questions. Besides the incursions of the state, there is something else that is keeping the two original male lovers apart.  When the equation changes, and the more female of the two bonds with the photographer, the same inability to give over and commit is still there.  Is this the inscrutable East?  Or the even more inscrutable notion of sexual identity?

You try to figure it out, as Spring Fever, via Strand Releasing, opens this Friday in New York City at the IFC Center and maybe elsewhere, soon, I hope.

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