After her 1984 feature “Love in a Fallen City,” Hong Kong filmmaker Ann Hui again adapts the work of the late, highly regarded Chinese novelist Eileen Chang. A melancholy melodrama about thwarted love and injurious emotional choices in ’30s Shanghai, “Eighteen Springs” boasts a strong cast, handsome production values and solid, if conventional, direction, but fails to ignite the passion required to propel it far beyond Chinatown circuits. Scattered festival bookings should follow nonetheless.
Central couple are Manzhen (Wu Chien-lien) and Shijun (Leon Lai), who meet in Shanghai through Shijun’s friend Shuhui (Wang Lei) and swiftly fall in love. The first of many obstacles is placed in their path by Shijun’s parents back in Nanjing, who intend for him to marry a wealthy girl from the same city (Annie Wu). She instead develops a romantic affinity with Shuhui, who backs off because of his class inferiority.
Further problems arise from Manzhen’s scruples about the taint on Shijun’s name that would come from marriage into her family, given the reputation of her older sister Manlu (Anita Mui), who is a sought-after courtesan. Forced into prostitution to support her family following the death of her father, Manlu is now hard, embittered and pushing 30. She agrees to marry creepy businessman Hongcai (Ge You), despite the fact that repeated abortions have left her unable to bear children. When Hongcai starts hankering for Manzhen and proposes taking her as his concubine and the mother of his children, Manlu colludes in the plan in order to save her marriage.
Hui and scripter Chan Kin-chung could have made the story more resonant for Western audiences by placing it more firmly within its socio-historical context: The Japanese presence in China at that time, and the resulting repression, is touched on only in passing.
But despite its slow pace and somewhat stolid feel, the film remains engrossing thanks to some fine players, drawn from Hong Kong, Taiwan and mainland China. Wu (“Eat Drink Man Woman”) and Cantopop star Lai bring poignancy to the plight of the unfulfilled lovers, and the pairing of consummate actors Mui and mainlander Ge (“To Live”) provides some real pleasures. Lenser Lee Ping-bin’s elegant framing adds distinction to the classy production. Chinese title roughly means “Half a Lifetime’s Romance,” under which English name Chang’s novel is also known.