Made in 2001 but receiving only scattered offshore dates during the past year, “Spring Subway” is a flawed but often exhilarating example of a type of Mainland Chinese cinema Western distribs and fests still seem to be in denial about. Though freshman helmer Zhang Yibai frustratingly keeps slipping into self-conscious modishness, at its best, this group of modern urban tales, centered on a young couple with a seven-year itch, has a vitality and optimism that could connect with Asiaphile auds.
Married couple Liu Jianbin (Geng Le) and Chen Xiaohui (Xu Jinglei) have been together seven years since they graduated and moved to Beijing. Both are still in love with each other, but — in one of her many confessionals direct to camera — Xiaohui wonders whether they’re getting too comfortable in their relationship.
Jianbin lost his job three months ago but, to hide the truth from his wife, rides the subway each day to waste time. He also becomes fascinated by and starts visiting a kindergarten teacher (Wang Ning) who’s been hospitalized after rescuing her pupils from a fire. On her side, Xiaohui starts receiving overtures from a coffee-bar owner (Zhang Yang, helmer of “Shower”) but can’t work out whether he’s hitting on her or just being friendly.
Between the ups and downs of the couple’s relationship — which basically comes down to trusting each other — other stories of subway passengers are woven in. There’s a geeky kid (Tu Qiang) who shyly fancies a photo shop girl (Gao Yuanyuan), and a middle-aged baker (Fan Wei) who hooks up with a ditzy trial-products saleswoman (Ke Lan). These subsidiary strands, which don’t always cut in smoothly, would have benefited from more development, even at the cost of the main story.
Helmer Zhang, whose background is in TV and commercials, seems unsure whether to make a thoroughly commercial pic or one peppered with artistic aspirations. He’s more successful at the former, with Zhang Yadong’s catchy score knitting together the host of scenes set in Beijing’s subway. The sense of indecision can also been seen in the film’s look, which is richly colored throughout and precisely lensed, but has no dominant visual style.
Playing by the leads, both popular local figures, is fine, with a natural chemistry in their relationship.