“How much sorrow can one man bear? As much as a river of spring water flowing east.” This quotation from Li Yu’s 10th century poem bookends and provides the title for Cai Chusheng and Zheng Junli’s Chinese melodrama The Spring River Flows East. The verse gives a palpable sense of foreboding to this sprawling wartime narrative, but also seems ironic given a cursory reading of the plot. It sees Sufen (Bai Yang) left to fend for herself when her husband volunteers during the occupation of the Second Sino-Japanese War. Abandoned in Shanghai with her infant son and mother-in-law (Wu Yin), she is easily the most empathetic character in a film filled with hardship.
She is the archetypal mother, caring for her family, struggling to do her duty in the most heinous of circumstances. For leftist cinema in a country enamoured of socialist ideas, she is the subjugated proletariat. Countered against her is Lizheng (Shu Xiawen), a member of the bourgeoisie who takes in a bereft Zhongliang when his fighting is done and seduces him. Given the film’s production in 1947 she’s a clear riff on the fashionable femme fatale, sent to tempt the hero from his plain wife. Far from the recognisable dichotomy that western cinema can track back to the likes of Murnau’s Sunrise, there are many eddies beneath the surface.
A focus on two women and a relatively passive man may seem progressive for the time, but the actions of both women are dedicated and defined by the traditions of the patriarchal society in which they live. The maternal Sufen represents a hard-working national ideal but despite everything that she goes through, she never takes one of the radical courses of action that she might, instead fulfilling her wifely duty. Lizheng, the scheming denizen of the wealthy, may appear to have more agency but she is equally confined by the mores of high society and ultimately humiliated when Zhongliang’s prior marriage is publicly revealed. Zhongliang himself is a puzzle. From the moment he plays dead to avoid Japanese bullets, his trajectory seems to be one of emasculation; going from charismatic volunteer soldier fighting for his country to effete kept man abandoning his responsibilities to his family.
It reinforces familiar precepts of masculinity, echoed by the almost mirror journey of his brother from academic to victorious guerrilla. The class and gender tensions are certainly present and intentional but subtly complex through the variety of interlinking stories and relationships. Additionally, the filmmaking style often feels simplistic but there are flashes of inspiration from a couple of apparently Soviet-inspired cuts during moments of high tension – a dog attack, and a bicycle crash – and a deeply expressive and metaphorical storm montage near the midpoint. Moments such as these generally overwhelm erratic pacing and stilted dialogue delivery, as do the churning currents of gender and class politics within that sorrowful, eastward-flowing river.
Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson