Film Review: Spring Fever

This tale of gay men and their woes in China is courageous, but too self-consciously directed and lugubriously uninvolving.
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In Nanjing, a woman, Lin Xue (Jiang Jiaqi), who discovers that her husband, Wang Ping (Wu Wei), is having an affair with a man, Jiang Cheng (Qin Hao), hires detective Luo Haitao (Chen Sicheng) to track him. However, the affair exerts a certain undeniable fascination for Luo, who gets involved in a triangular love situation with his own girlfriend, Li Jing (Tan Zhuo) and Wang.

Spring Fever is obviously a serious, heartfelt project for director Lou Ye, his version of Jules and Jim, and one can appreciate his courage in presenting such a frank treatment of homosexuality in his country. You just wish it were more involving. Lou seems to be suffering from acute Wong Kar-Wai-tis, with his severely subjective storytelling, full of blatant cinematic trickery and calculated visuals. Wong’s films, while often obtuse, diffuse and rambling, nevertheless have certain poetic/visual rewards to sustain the viewer, but here Lou is no such artist. His use of the handheld camera is the most annoying of these devices—this may be the most needlessly migraine-inducing film ever. And, perhaps to add a sensual mystery to his endlessly morose characters, he has photographed them in such darkness that you often don’t know what the hell is going on or who is who. This is not only about the love that dare not speak its name—it doesn’t show its face either. (Curiously, the best-lit scenes are the ones of same-sex coupling, which are pretty blatant in the face of Chinese censorship and generate some momentary, if rather gratuitous, heat.)

In a supposed effort to focus squarely on his characters, Lou has largely rendered their setting as totally anonymous—you get no true feel of the historic city of Nanjing, the capital of China for six dynasties and, of course, where the Japanese went berserk in 1937. The overall tone, too, is relentlessly grim—to match the shadowy mise-en-scène. A few light moments are provided in a gay drag bar (where Jiang Cheng goes tranny), but, as in life the world over, if you’ve been to one, you’ve been to them all. The protagonists karaoke-sing various lugubrious songs and quote poetic passages from a 1920s book by Yu Dafu, to ever-diminishing effect.

The actors are all admirably committed. It’s just a shame one can’t feel more for them, not to mention see more of them.