Three female members of a family struggle with multi-generational secrets, trauma and the hardships of motherhood in Yang Lina’s Spring Tide. The Chinese filmmaker, whose past work lies predominantly in documentary, inspects the past, present and future of a nation by pulling apart the ties, lies and aspirations of a grandmother, her daughter and granddaughter.
Living at uncomfortably close quarters in the family home, which consists of just a few rooms on a single floor, tempers flare almost immediately. Guo Jianbo (Lei Hao), a reputed journalist in her early forties, arrives home as her mother (Elaine Jin) is mid-way through a choir practice for an all-important upcoming competition. Exasperated and evidently in need of sleep, Jianbo, petulantly, purposefully floods the tiny kitchen so that the warbling geriatric sardines, packed into Minglan’s front room, are forced to make a swift exit.
There’s hardly the space for an elephant in any of the rooms, but it takes time for the reasons looming large and unavoidable behind such pettiness, and the bubbling resentment between the two women, to come to light. Links between Jianbo smacking a teacher guilty of molesting children in his care and long-buried stories about her father’s sexual perversity, brought back to the surface, are bitter ingredients of a film that simmers more than it ever boils over.
Taking place for the most part in cramped internal spaces, Lina’s clinical, documentarian’s lens, long takes and static camera blur the line between fiction and reality. “The eyes of a hawk and the ears of a wolf,’ says the sparky, shrewd young Guo Wanting of her grandmother, with whom she has lived most of her life. Paying close attention to expressions, frosty tones and notable silences, there’s much to deduce between the lines. The occasional one-night stand with a moody, musical lover, and a one-room dormitory apartment offer Jianbo little more than passing satisfaction and a moment’s rest.
Why was she not around more when Wanting was in her infancy? From the pained reactions of the parents of abused children, to being unable to comprehend the suicide of a neighbour late on her rent, to memories closer to home buried deep for a lifetime, keeping silent for the sake of reputation, for fear of ‘what people might say’ is shown to be futile throughout Spring Tide. At a school reunion with elderly classmates, Minglan may brush aside questions about her husband with platitudes of “water under the bridge,” but like a dam ready to burst, there comes a time when something has to give.
Some may long for the lost days of Chairman Mao, but contemporary China has evolved. Not afraid to bite at the hand that feeds her, Jianbo’s articles dare to criticise the state – just as she frequently antagonises her mother. Respecting elders and the traditions passed down from one generation to the next doesn’t necessarily sit well with the practicalities of modern life, and Jianbo’s hopes for her daughter’s future. Spring Tide’s meandering structure and deliberate pacing reveal the breadcrumbs of their collective past slowly. Confusing dreams, unexplained visions and an ambiguous ending further muddy the waters of Lina’s film. But though in its form, style and performances there’s a lot to explore just below the surface here, Spring Tide never fully sweeps us away.
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Matthew Anderson | @MattAndo63