China, Drama, Films, Recommended posts, Reviews

Spring Tide

Acclaimed director Yang Lina’s second fiction feature explores the lives of women in modern China…

Spring Tide is the second in female Chinese writer director Yang Lina’s planned trilogy about women in modern China, following on from Longing for the Rain, which won several awards on the international festival circuit on its release back in 2013. The film is her second fiction feature, with Yang having initially made a name for herself through acclaimed documentaries such as Old Men, Home Video and The Love of Lao An, as well as through starring in Jia Zhangke’s classic Platform. The film had its world premiere at Shanghai International Film Festival in 2019, before going on to play at a number of other festivals later in the year, winning awards and nominations. It was set for release in Chinese cinemas in March 2020, and though this didn’t happen due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the film was released online in China and proved surprisingly successful, in particular among female audiences.

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The film follows a family of three women, focusing on Jianbo (played by Hao Lei, who featured in Lou Ye’s Summer Palace and Mystery), a journalist in her 40s who lives with her elderly mother Minglan (Hong Kong-Taiwanese actress Elaine Jin Yan-ling, an award-winning industry veteran who starred in several Edward Yang films, and who recently won acclaim for her performances in Mad World and Port of Call), a popular figure in the community who organises old revolutionary song competitions. It’s clear from the start that this mother and daughter are two very different women, and that there is a wall of sorts between them, with Jianbo’s young daughter Wanting (Qu Junxi) frequently caught in the middle, and the tension builds as past secrets are revealed.

All of Yang Lina’s films, whether documentary or fiction, are intimate, humanistic works with an autobiographical or self-exploratory air, and Spring Tide is certainly no different in this regard, and is an engaging and searching character study. The three female lead characters are all complex and extremely well written, and although Yang’s script does link each to the period of modern Chinese history they grew up in, this is used to provide insight into the ways in which they communicate with and relate to each other, or indeed fail to, rather than for obvious political allegory. Similarly, while the film deals with a variety of social issues, for example with its opening showing parents outraged after learning that a schoolteacher has been molesting his students, Yang weaves these skilfully into the background as part of a rich narrative, leaving the experiences of her characters to take centre stage.

Clocking in at just over two hours, Spring Tide is ambiguous in places, and does have a pace which might feel slow for some viewers, though it’s thoughtful and quietly emotional throughout, much like protagonist Jianbo, with most of the outbursts coming from her mother or her energetic daughter. The film is keenly observant, and the shifting relationship between the three women is gripping without falling back on too much melodrama, Yang instead depicting what feels like a war of attrition between Jianbo and her mother, with their exchanges becoming increasingly cruel, and occasionally very funny. The tension is accentuated by Jianbo’s relationships with the different men in her life, which are very much on her terms, something which frustrates her mother in her attempts to matchmake and to push her into a traditional marriage. At the same time, the film is non-judgemental, all its characters having their own crosses to bear, and when dark secrets from the past come to light later on, Yang shows how each have their own perspectives and memories of events which have shaped their lives and relationships – in this, Spring Tide recalls Yang Lina’s early doc Home Video, in which she used a single camera to explore the reasons behind her own parents’ seemingly sudden decision to divorce.

As with Longing for the Rain, the film has an aesthetic which is a mix of the grounded and the artistic, Yang’s background as a documentary maker frequently coming to the fore, and with subtly gorgeous cinematography from Jake Pollock, who recently also worked on Lou Ye’s The Shadow Play. This fits its understated approach very well, and the naturalistic air draws audiences into the lives of the characters, making the viewer feel at times like an observer in the same room, though without crossing into awkward voyeurism. The film benefits from very strong performances from its leads, Hao Lei and Elaine Jin Yan-ling painfully convincing as the mother and daughter whose fraught relationship drives the story towards its ambiguous, though arguably hopeful conclusion.

All of this sets Spring Tide apart from the vast majority of recent Chinese films exploring the experiences of women, especially those from male filmmakers, and it again confirms Yang Lina as one of the most interesting directors – female or male – working in China today. Although the story deals with a specially Chinese mother-daughter relationship, it’s a fascinating and moving film that should speak to audiences globally, and one which will hopefully have the chance to be more widely seen.

Spring Tide screens as part of the Glasgow Film Festival 2021, which runs from 24th February to 7th March.

About the author

James MudgeJames Mudge James Mudge
From Glasgow but based in London, James has been writing for a variety of websites over the last decade, including BeyondHollywood in the US and YesAsia in Hong Kong. As well as running film consultancy The Next Day Agency, James is also the Festival Director of the Chinese Visual Festival in London, an annual event which showcases Chinese language cinema... More »
Read all posts by James Mudge

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