“How much sorrow can one man have to bear? As much as a river of spring water flowing east” goes the poem from which The Spring River Flows East derives its name. Indeed, a whole lot of sorrow – plus some action and drama too! – is spread across the three-hour running time of Chusheng Cai and Junli Zheng’s epic, often cited as one of the masterpieces of Chinese cinema. Restored by the China Film Archive, it’s now receiving its first ever UK release.
The film begins in 1931 and ends in the late 1940s, covering the lives of one family before, during and after the Second Sino-Japanese War, and is split into two parts. In part one, we meet a young couple, Zhongliang and Sufen. Zhongliang leaves his wife, mother and infant son behind to fight in the war, where he’s captured by the Japanese. Back at home, his family suffer under Japanese occupation.
By the second half, Zhongliang has escaped his captors and been taken in by a wealthy acquaintance. Finding himself in bourgeois society, he forgets about his family and his morals. Meanwhile, Sufen suffers more and more, turning to desperate measures to feed her son.
It’s a Chinese equivalent of a David Lean epic – the personal struggles of a small group set against the sweeping backdrop of history. The film was very current upon its release in China just two years after the war had ended; for Western viewers today, it’s got a more educational value, showing us a part of twentieth-century history we may not know. Though actual action sequences are sparse, the filmmakers cut in genuine newsreel footage, which builds up both tension and veracity.
The characters are well developed across this period. In Zhongliang, we have an excellent portrayal of a man who starts out as a revolutionary and a romantic but is changed by the situations he’s thrown into, becoming a coward and a cad. But the tears referenced in that poem surely belong to Sufen; her increasingly harrowing conditions have a real sense of desperation to them, and you’ll be rooting for the family to find some solace, even when you know what her husband’s really getting up to. Some sequences, however, can be very melodramatic, and there is some over-acting, particularly from the actress who plays Zhongliang’s benefactor and lover, which does seem cringeworthy through modern eyes.
So the film may lack the finesse of the American and British movies of the same time which it’s easy to compare it to, but as a cultural artefact, it’s not only an excellent insight into twentieth-century Chinese history through the eyes of various characters, but it’s also an epic and harrowing family drama.
Special Features: Featurette about Chungking
THE SPRING RIVER FLOWS EAST / CERT: U / DIRECTORS & SCREENPLAY: CHUSHENG CAI, JUNLI ZHENG / STARRING: BAI YANG, TAO JIN, SHU XIUWEN, SHANGGUAN YUNZHU / RELEASE DATE: FEBRUARY 20TH