I have been meaning to write a piece on this film since I watched it in May, but at first I didn’t know what constructive things I could say about it, and then other things took over. Along with a review, I feel I need to provide some social and historical context for the events in this film to viewers who may be puzzled by its setting. If you just want to read the review, scroll to Part III.
And the Spring Comes is a Chinese film made in 2007, directed by Changwei Gu and starring Wenli Jiang. It is set in a small northern industrial town in the late late 1980s, where Cailing Wang (Jiang) is working as an opera singing teacher for the local teacher’s college. She aspires to find work in Beijing’s Central Music Academy, and eventually to “sing my way into the Paris operahouse;” but due to poverty, legal restrictions, and lack of social connections, it is very difficult for her to realize her dream. The film follows her efforts and her relationships with various struggling artists around her who are in the same predicament.
The film went on to win Best Actress at the Rome Film Festival, among various other wins and nominations in China and Asia. I am quite astounded at the lack of Western attention to this film, as opposed to, say, Curse of the Golden Flower or Infernal Affairs (which was the basis for The Departed). While I could rant about how this is an example of still-pervasive Orientalism, I’ll save that for another day…
I. Social-historical context
Most non-Chinese viewers would likely take free movement within their country of citizenship for granted. Although movement in China is still restricted to a certain extent, it is less tightly regulated than in the 80’s and 90’s, where an individual was limited to work and live in the municipality of his or her birth. This means that, in the film, Cailing needs to illegally purchase an ID card for the Beijing area if she is to be admitted into the Central Academy of Music. Often this involves more than money for purchases, such as bribes and social connections, which she lacks as somewhat of a country bumpkin. This problem also applies to Sibao, who is talented but has no connections in Beijing either, and can’t get into the Art Academy. The film shows cailing standing before Tiananmen square twice. The first time she is leaning on a barrier, gazing at an out-of-focus Tiananmen, and the second time, she and her adopted child watch lines of elementary school children in uniform parade across the square. Neither she nor her descendants will ever manage to change their peripheral existence. (And if any non-mandarin speakers notices that the mandarin the characters speak in this film sounds weird, it’s because it’s almost a regional dialect, and reinforces the impression that these small town people are less refined than city folk.)
It may seem to Western viewers that their ambitions to make it into the Central Academy are rather materialistic – sure, we’d all like to get into Harvard, but community colleges still have a lot to offer, and you people can live on minimum wage. This wasn’t the case in China (and still isn’t). One of the better aspects of Western mass capitalism is that at least the central and peripheral areas do not differ as substantially with respect to the quality of products and services offered (eg, there’s a Walmart everywhere, and the Walmart servicing a rural/suburban community doesn’t differ from the Walmart servicing, say, New York). In China, and especially in the 80s and 90s, not being in the big city means that your chances of advancement are close to nill and you are living in a small hut with no running water. (Of course, there is a quasi Industrial Revolution thing going on in China right now where you are still living in a hut with no running water even if you’re in Beijing, due to the massive influx of rural workers coming into cities for better life. But I won’t get into that much here.)
What has developed in China somewhat is the attitude toward the Fine Arts and the Performing Arts. I give these capital letters to mean that they refer to the Western construction of Art. China has gone through (and maybe is still going through) a sort of “foreign good, domestic bad” kind of attitude, and this film is set just after China has opened itself to Western influence for a decade or less. The 1960s had been embroiled in the Cultural Revolution, which chucked out art (and especially Western-influenced Art) as “bourgeoisie,” and the 1970s saw internal political stabbing and national resource shortages. In such a context, it’s not difficult to understand why the average small-town factory worker or farmer would receive a male ballet dancer in tights in a less-than-appreciative way, especially a homosexual one. I say “developed somewhat” because many rural areas in China still have no access to consistent electricity, and hence an appreciation of imported products, media and values is difficult to develop. Case in point is Yu Zhou’s gift to Cailing of a pocket radio, and her response being, “Did you rob a bank?”
II. Non-linear plot
I imagine that the majority of the (Western, and increasingly other) population subscribes to Freytag’s pyramid whether they are conscious of it or not, and expect introduction, rising action, climax, and denouement (or conclusion). A classic example, I guess, would be something like Gladiator, where the problem facing the main character is introduced pretty early in the film (his family is killed, political division) and he goes on to solve them in the film’s climax (gets his revenge, senators refuses to follow Commodus) and conclusion with resolution (fellow slaves are freed and remembers him fondly, Rome enters a new era).
People who are used to this kind of plot movement might be confused and disappointed by And the Spring Comes, which seems to go nowhere. Sure, Cailing’s goals are identified early on, but it never gets resolved satisfactorily, and there are no consistent supporting characters accompanying her to the end. One website describes her actions as having relationships with similar minor characters over and over again. Rather than a shortcoming, this is the point of the film – in the oppressive and philistine social atmosphere, life becomes a cyclical rut. Every time Cailing feels as if she has emerged into some greater opportunity, affection, or truth, the world seems to turn its back on her and she is forced to withdraw. As Sibao say, “Every time I see someone pack and bag and leave this town, I envy them. No matter where they’re going.”
From the statements above, the title of the film, “And the Spring Comes,” is hopefully ironic. the film opens with Cailing’s voiceover: “When the spring comes – even if there’s no real sign of spring – but the breeze is…different. It’s like the wind changes overnight to become warm and moist. When this kind of breeze blows by, I just want to cry. And I realize, it’s really just me causing all of this emotion.” During this voice over, the camera shows the polluted city where she lives, with bare branches and row upon row of grey rooftops. The desire pervading all figures in the film for some sort of breakthrough, for something to happen, is rarely fulfilled, with the exception of Beibei Gao, who manages to win second place at a singing competition with Cailing’s financial support (but having to lie to Cailing to get her support). Siboa Huang has tried for years to be admitted into the Central Academy of Art, only to run a semi-fraudulent matchmaking service; Cialing’s neighbour, Zhang, is abandoned by her husband. Jinquan, the homosexual ballet dancer, manages a perverse “breakthrough” by pretending to molest one of his ballet students, and is sent to prison. “I’ve always felt like I was a fishbone stuck in their throats, and now, I’m plucked out. It’s a relief to them, and also to me.” The scene in which Cailing and her aged parents are watching the Spring Festival (Chinese New Year) celebrations on television from their one-room country hut drive home the bitter fact that Spring is something that happens to people with money, status, and beauty.
In addition, the film is full of wrong turns and missed opportunities. When Cailing believes that she has attained some of Sibao’s affections, he calls her out and humiliates her in public. She drops by his matchmaking service without knowing that he manages it, and they later pass each other on the street, but never meet face to face again. This tortured inaction is punctuated by moments of extreme pathos, such as when Cailing visits Jinquan in prison, and through the bars, he quietly demonstrates how he could use prison-issued cloth shoes to do a pirouette.
Wenli Jiang’s award for Best Actress is more than deserved. For once, the Asian female in a movie viewed outside China isn’t a martial arts master or a seductive temptress, but a real like woman of her age and station – unattractive and somewhat conceited, but also relentless in pursuit of her ideals, and Jiang portrays her perfectly. Although Cailing sometimes brags and lies, she seeks Truth in her life and her art. She tries despite the many obstacles to realize her dream of being recognized for her singing, and although this seems slightly ridiculous in our age of Clean&Clear, pushes aside suggestions of treating her freckles and pimples.
Even more heroic than her career aspirations is her refusal to cave into social expectations and live a lie in her private life. After Sibao tells her that he envies whomever gets to leave the town, Cailing confesses that she’s still a virgin, but she doesn’t want love to happen in such a place (almost right after this, the town security barges to her home and demand to see Sibao’s work permit.) Her love in this film is most likely Sibao, who doesn’t return her affections. Sibao comes to her, drunk after failing to gain admission to the Academy of Art once again, and she sleeps with him without his knowledge. The next morning, she puts on makeup and a yellow scarf before going to work, only to have Sibao wake up and drag her across the school grounds before leaving in a fury.
Sibao’s friend, Yu Zhou, a long admirer of Cailing’s singing, propose that they marry, because “neither of us has much anyway.” Jinquan, the homosexual ballet dancer, also proposes to marry Cailing so the local community would needling one for being homosexual and the other for being single. Cailing responds to both of these offers with refusal and derision. She adopts a little girl with a hare lip, most likely for the sake of her parents, and names her Little Fan (fan denoting “ordinary” in this case).
The one problem I have with this film is that it seems to promote Western Art and culture as high culture, and relegate those who do not appreciate Western Art as somehow inferior and with low taste. However, I do have to say that this may not be the production’s intent, that the film makers chose an era of general lack of understanding and appreciation of aspiring artists, which just happens in China to have been a transition from domestic to foreign art and culture. And given the lengthy social background I gave in Part I, this lack of support is a social phenomenon and in no way a slur towards the average rural worker. In the end, this film is about ordinary people who are also extraordinary, but due to social circumstances, cannot exercise their talents or be themselves. It is a film about the artistic and sensitive soul even in the lowest orders of society and the worst circumstances. Cailing’s paralyzed father watching his wife and daughter blowing bubbles with Little Fan in the yard with a tear running down his face and Yu pausing amidst the throng of other cyclers to weep over Cailing’s song coming from the public radio are both instances of the longing and in some ways attainment of Spring in their joined humanity.