Dan continues his look at 70 years of Asian cinema with epic drama The Spring River Flows East, released in 1947 and now considered one of the classics of Chinese film
The eight or so years leading to the start of the Japanese invasion of China in 1938 are largely considered to be the first Golden Age of Chinese cinema. Progressive, left-wing filmmaking flourished, producing socially conscious and commercially successful films, the big studios prospered and major movie stars were established. Japanese occupation and the Second World War ended this period, with many directors forced to kowtow to the Japanese propaganda machine, make empty, message-free entertainments or flee to regions such as Hong Kong which were less affected by the occupation. There were still interesting films made during this time, particularly in south-western areas where the Nationalist KMT party was still a force and so-called ‘national defence cinema’ became a potent weapon in the struggle against Japanese aggressors. But for the most part, it wasn’t until the end of the war that China once again produced films that are now looked back on as truly great cinema.
What is remarkable about the second Golden Age is that it lasted only three years – cut off in its prime in 1949 by the Communist Revolution – and yet it produced more than 150 films in often difficult post-war conditions. The earlier leftist tradition returned to document and highlight the struggle of the under-classes at the time, and as a result spawned some of the most enduring pictures in Chinese history. The Spring River Flows East is one of the most famous films of this period – a three-hour epic (released in two parts, titled Eight War Torn Years and Before and After Dawn), charting the struggles of a family over a 15 year period that spans both sides of the war. It provided both moving human drama and biting social commentary and proved a huge success with audiences who could identify with many of the events portrayed onscreen.
The film begins in 1931. Zhang Zhongliang is a young idealist who works in a Shanghai textile factory and supports the volunteer army fighting the Japanese in the north. Zhongliang has married a loving woman called Sufen, with whom he has a son. But when the invasion reaches their home, Zhongliang joins the resistance and heads off to fight for his country, leaving his wife, child and mother to survive in increasingly difficult conditions under Japanese rule. Zhongliang himself is captured, escapes and makes his way to Chungking, penniless and desperate. There he falls under the wing of wealthy liberal Lizhen, whom he ends up marrying. As Zhongliang begins a new, prosperous life both during and after the war, his now-forgotten wife and son struggle to survive in poverty-stricken Shanghai.
At first it seems curious that The Spring River Flows East should have proved so popular with post-war Chinese audiences. Often tough economic times create art that provide entertainment and escape from the daily grind, and yet the vast majority of this film, co-directed by Cai Chusheng and Zheng Junli, is unremittingly bleak. The daily struggle that Sufen and her son and mother-in-law experience both under the Japanese and then in the desperate years after their surrender is shown in painful, realistic detail; in the second part of the film this is mirrored by the corrupt, decadent lifestyle that Zhongliang enjoys as he uses his business acumen to profit from the conflict and enjoys the company of both his second wife and a mistress in Shanghai.
But it should be remembered that this was a country that had not been exposed to honest, socially-realist cinema for well over a decade. The sympathy that the filmmakers evoke for Sufen’s plight and the anger directed at Zhongliang and his greed-driven associates were exactly what struggling audiences wanted to experience on the big screen at this time. And it is perhaps even more surprising that the ruling Nationalist government would allow such a pessimistic, scathing film to be shown – although The Spring River Flows East was produced by the independent Kunlun studio, the state still regularly wielded its censorial scissors. Perhaps they felt that the economic troubles were so deep-rooted that denying them would be an act of folly; it is also notable that it is the Japanese and the corrupt bourgeois who come in for the bulk of the filmmaker’s ire, rather than the government itself.
As a piece of storytelling, The Spring River Flows East holds up very well. 190 minutes obviously makes for a long film, but the division into two parts helps and the pacing is masterful – while you do exit the film feeling that you’ve spent more than a decade with these characters, it never feels overlong. This is not a subtle film – it’s very melodramatic, particularly as Zhongliang’s life begins to unravel in the final 30 minutes, and some of the performances do seem a little at odds with one another – contrast Bai Yang’s quiet, dignified performance as Sufan with Shu Xiuwen’s cackling, eye-rolling turn as the bullying, selfish Lizhen. Of course, such juxtaposition was no doubt intentional, highlighting the vast difference between Zhongliang’s two wives, but it does seem a little jarring to modern eyes. There are also a series of inevitable but unlikely contrivances that bring the two plot strands together at the end; but again, this is melodrama – what really counts is the compassion with which Sufen’s story is told and the insight it gives us into life for the ordinary Chinese worker at this time. And although The Spring River Flows East might be very much a product of its time, the themes of working class oppression and exploitation during times of both war and peace feel as relevant as ever.
ASIA7070 SO FAR…
1940: Nobuko (Japan)
1941: Princess Iron Fan (China)
1942: The War at Sea from Hawaii to Malay (Japan)
1943: Sanshiro Sugata (Japan)
1944: Dear Soldier (Korea/Japan)
1945: A Tale of Archery at the Sanjusangendo (Japan)
1946: Hurrah! For Freedom (Korea)