Three years after tweaking the nose of China’s Film Bureau with full-frontal nudity and direct references to the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident in “Summer Palace,” mainland helmer Lou Ye is at it again — this time with lashings of gay sex — in the five-way ensembler “Spring Fever.” Pic circumvents the bureau’s five-year filmmaking ban on Lou by being registered as a Hong Kong-French co-production, though beyond fests (especially gay ones) and the hardcore arthouse crowd, this overlong and very Euro-flavored “Spring” won’t make many B.O. wickets bloom.
Shot clandestinely in Nanjing, central China, on digital equipment — cleanly transferred to 35mm though murky in interiors — “Spring Fever” aims to evoke an atmosphere in which characters are swept up in a metaphysical fever, which blurs some sexual inclinations while reinforcing others. The movie’s poetic Chinese title literally means “A Night Deeply Drunk on the Spring Breeze.”
With its shifting, unstable weather — from spring rain and overcast haze to sunny spells — the pic does intermittently evoke a time of year when nature is stirring after a long period of hibernation. But the effect is weakened by the lack of visual consistency in d.p. Zeng Jian’s lensing, and with a lot of the action taking place in dully lit interiors, the connection between nature and the human world remains more in the pic’s English and Chinese titles than in what comes through on the bigscreen. Overall tone, especially in the second half, is more of autumnal melancholy than of spring fever.
Helmer Lou starts off as he means to continue, with a full-on (but genitalia-free) sex sequence between married Wang Ping (Wu Wei) and his male lover, Jiang Cheng (Qin Hao). What Wang doesn’t know is that his wife, schoolteacher Lin Xue (Jiang Jiaqi), is having him followed by unemployed Luo Haitao (Chen Sicheng), who snaps photos of the two men together.
During an awkward dinner a trois, in which Jiang poses as Wang’s old university friend, Lin plays along. But when Wang later finds out she’s had him followed, Lin not only bawls her hubby out at home but also humiliates Jiang at his workplace.
These brief scenes, superbly played by actress Jiang Jiaqi, are among the few authentically emotional and gripping sequences in the movie, which otherwise schematically moves feelings and characters around at the script’s convenience.
Things turn more melancholy and moony as Luo — in a sudden development that’s never properly justified dramatically or psychologically — becomes less interested physically in his g.f. (Tan Zhuo) and more sexually drawn to his initial quarry, Jiang. Ensuing emotional complications over the remaining 75 minutes result in a suicide, much heart-searching (though little of it via meaningful dialogue) and one scene after another of gay lovemaking.
The screenplay is much better constructed than the untidy “Summer Palace,” but the pic is still a long, long way from Lou’s inventive and involving “Suzhou River” and flawed but impressively ambitious period drama, “Purple Butterfly.” As Lou has seemingly catered more and more to Euro tastes (and Western sensibilities), his vision and imagination have become progressively more restricted.
Script has little idea what to do with Wang or either of the female characters, all of whom are left stranded as the pic focuses on Luo’s homosexual “affair” with Jiang. Perfs are OK, but with little to chew on in the script, the actors almost seem to blend into each other at times.
Atmospheric score by Iranian composer Peyman Yazdanian (“Summer Palace”) adds some color.