China is a rich and age-ed culture. It is world renowned for its art, its architecture, its philosophy and its poetry. It is also a cinematic powerhouse, with a population rivalled only by India in terms of numbers; China has quickly become the next big market for Hollywood to conquer. That doesn't mean that they don't make their own films and cinematic history is littered with great Chinese filmmakers and classic films. The BFI has brought one such classic The Spring River Flows East, an epic melodrama with a run time to match, to the UK with their February DVD release of the film, the first time it has been released in the UK.
Spanning three hours and two parts The Spring River Flows East follows the plight of working class couple Sun (Bai Yang), a textile factory worker, and Zhang Zhongliang (Tao Jin) whose lives are dramatically altered by the Second Sino-Japanese War.
This film is long, as already mentioned, it is three hours long. It reminds me a lot of Gone With The Wind, due to its length, and the topics that it covered. The Spring River Flows East follows two characters but it covers a very challenging time for China, Japanese occupation. The film not only tells the stories of Sufen, Zhongliang and their family but the history of the war between Japan and China, the treatment of Chinese citizens under Japanese occupation and the changing political and business landscape during that time. It did feel a little over long, there was certainly an overabundance of big emotional speeches and lots of montages of hardships, but it is a melodrama, so that is to be expected.
The film is certainly well made with a sweeping story, but the main draw of this film, like many melodramas, is the performances. Bai Yang as Sufen is suitably emotional as the responsible mother, kind daughter-in-law and caring wife, while Tao Jin's Zhang Zhongliang goes through so many character changes, from earnest idealist to slimy business mogul, it is easy to love and hate him at the same time. By the time you get to the emotional climax you are routing for and against the couple at the same time. Expect some slightly over the top performances, though the stylised acting does, in fact, suit the tone of the film. But depending on your tolerance for hammy acting then your mileage may vary.
I know this may not interest every reader, but I wish to add that The Spring River Flows East is also important historically. Not only does it give an insight into one period in Chinese history, the Sino-Japanese War, but also the period in which the film was made, how that society viewed class, itself, other nations and gender. Finally The Spring River Flows East also shows western audiences a view into the way in which the Chinese film industry worked, with the length of the film, and the way that it is divided into two parts.
Overall, I enjoyed the film, it isn't a light watch by any stretch of the imagination. It is the type of film that is perfect for a miserable afternoon, when you haven't got much to do, but you feel like being cultured. Though I did have trouble getting all of the culture specifics of the film, entrenched as it is in post-World War Two Chinese Politics, it is an interesting and highly detailed glimpse into a very important time for a highly dynamic nation.
Despite the age of the film, The Spring River Flows East looks amazing. The China Film Archive has done a tremendous job restoring this behemoth, and the BFI has done a similarly fantastic job transferring that restored version to DVD. There are no obvious digital video or audio errors with the disc, and the film both looks and sounds as good as it can.
The construction of the menus is somewhat simplistic, single titles on a static image, but simple is also easy to navigate and use. Finally, the subtitles are clear and easy to read, a very important detail for a Mandarin Language film. The BFI then has done a great job putting the release together, and I could find no faults with the way that the mechanics of the DVD operated.
There is only one extra on this release, and that is a one-minute archive video about Chungking. It does provide a very brief insight into a unique city. But for a BFI release, it does feel somewhat lacking. I was expecting more historical extras or at least a video essay from film academics. However, the amount of extras might be a result of the film being almost 3 hours long.
The Spring River Flows East is not for everyone. It is overly long and melodramatic and old. I enjoyed it because I am a film buff with an interest in Asian cinema. The BFI has done a great service in releasing this film as it is part of a national cinema that has been dominated by Wu Xia movies. It can be a hard watch, but if you stick with The Spring River Flows East you are rewarded with an emotional tornado, a journey through a period in recent history that has yet to be explored by western audiences and a unique perspective on class, gender and Chinese Society.
While it could be a purchase for film historians, this is a niche film for a niche audience,, this is not helped by a lack of bonus features