A talented but unattractive woman in a provincial industrial city dreams of making it big in the Beijing opera world in “And the Spring Comes,” top cinematographer Gu Changwei’s respectable but lukewarm follow-up to his feature debut, Berlinale standout “Peacock.” As in the earlier pic, Gu appears to have removed all transitional scenes, creating the sense of an episodic narrative populated by misfits who find contentment only when their dreams are shelved. Fest life is unlikely to generate much buzz, though a nuanced perf by Gu’s wife, Jiang Wenli, was rewarded in Rome.
Not a sequel to “Peacock,” as first reported, though also scripted by Li Qiang, “And the Spring Comes” opens with lovely shots of a traditional pagoda, expanding out to reveal its sore-thumb placement above a gray industrial landscape. Image is a nice metaphor for Wang Tsai-ling (Jiang), a voice teacher in the local school with a penchant for Western opera and an unfortunate skin condition. Though she lives in the same bunker-like housing as the factory workers, she holds herself far above her neighbors, boasting dishonestly of big-time Beijing connections.
Bumbling, Pushkin-quoting Zhou Yu (Wu Guohua) falls for Wang’s voice and superior ways, though it’s friend Huang Sibao (Li Guangjie) who hopes to use the homely teacher to get accepted to the Beijing Art Academy. Their temporary sojourn in Beijing is a predictable disaster, as Huang rejects Wang’s amorous advances and Wang finds it impossible to get a foot in the door of any opera company.
Back home, humiliation continues in a scene both funny and sad, as Wang performs an Italian aria in an outdoor arts festival that has crowds ankling. Also publicly rejected is effeminate ballet dancer Mr. Hu (Jiao Gang), a self-described fishbone in the throats of the community for his swishy ways.
Further humiliations await until Wang accepts her fate as a mere provincial teacher and finds peace under limited horizons. Gu’s strength unquestionably lies in his depiction of a small industrial city, colorless and cement-enclosed, where dreams are discouraged and individuality frowned upon. But there’s little implied criticism, and by eliminating transitions, Gu turns Wang’s story into a series of vignettes, as she and those she comes in contact with pass from one pipe dream to another. Populating the story with misfits also uncomfortably marginalizes their qualities and aspirations — not only Wang’s unappealing features and Hu’s obvious homosexuality, but even the baldness of a young woman, Gao Beibei (Zhang Yao), who pretends to be dying of cancer so she’ll have an edge at a voice competition.
Believably covered with unsightly acne, Jiang expertly captures Wang’s puffed-up airs while remaining painfully conscious of her limitations. Her determination, however misguided, could be inspiring if Gu and Li made such desires feel worthy of support.
Scenes in the industrial city are generally lensed with natural light, and there’s a sharp contrast between the dinginess of these cold boxes and the colorful bel canto gowns Wang dons to belt out Puccini. Vocals are dubbed by rising soprano You Hongfei.