director: Ann Hui On-wah cast: Wu Chien-Lien ... Gu Manjing
director: Ann Hui On-wah
Wu Chien-Lien ... Gu Manjing
The films of Ann Hui have always stood apart from the mainstream of Hong Kong cinema. It's partly a matter of subject matter, partly of style. Hui has consistently chosen to be different. If she rejects some of the virtues of Hong Kong cinema (its immediate readability, its high-gloss finish, its accelerated sense of screen time), she substitutes her own set of sophisticated virtues: richly lifelike, compassionately-drawn female characters, a seriousness of purpose, a 'naturalistic sense of pacing that lets the films breathe, take their own time, and set their own reflective (maybe on occasion a bit stolid) tempo.
Hui works within, or perhaps more accurately, beside, existing film genres. Refracted through her sensibility, martial arts epic becomes Romance of Book and Sword, romantic melodrama becomes The Story of Woo Viet, action-bio becomes The Story of Ah Kam, and domestic comedy becomes Summer Snow.
Eighteen Springs continues this project. It is based on an Eileen Chang novel, a story of romance and fate set in the Shanghai of the 1930s. Manjing (Wu Chien-lien), a young woman from a once-well-off family, works in a Shanghai factory, where she meets Shujun (Leon Lai), the son of wealthy Nanjing merchants. Despite Shujun's reservations about Manjing's family (her sister, Manlu (Anita Mui) works as a nightclub "hostess"), they manage, in stages, to fall in love. The expected progress through engagement to marriage is interrupted, first by Manjing's ambivalence about taking this step, then by Shujun's rejection of her family, and finally by that family's baroquely conceived abuse and enslavement of Shujun. After a long period of seperation, Shujun and Manjing meet, but realize that their happiness remains only in memory, in a nostalgic re-imagining of opportunities missed, understandings never arrived at.
Eighteen Springs takes this material and reshapes it, through both stylistic and structural means. In style, the film is designed to recreate the film world of 1930s and 40s Shanghai. But Hui goes beyond a careful period recreation based on costumes and sets. She choses a "look" that itself evokes that period's films. Scenes are staged and photographed in an'old fashioned' style: small domestic interiors; with few actors, whose movements are clearly and simply blocked; entrances and exits through doorways; in conversation around tables. Camera placement, framing, and movement are strictly controlled, with careful exceptions made for shots with a specific expressionistic or narrative purpose. Two examples:
The structure of Eighteen Springs also serves to reshape the melodramatic impulse at its heart. From the very first scene, we hear the voices of two narrators: Manjing, and then Shujun relate (in slightly contradictory versions) how they first met. This structure of parallel narration continues throughout the film: one character's voice over is immediately followed by the other's.
Hui provides a visual frame for only one side of this, though. In several scenes, we see Shujun, at some future time (about 15 years after the start of the story), riding on a trolley towards his last meeting with Manjing. So his voice-overs recall the early story of their romance, from the point of view of the beginning of the film's last scene. No similar visual point of reference is given for Manjing's narration, though: we don't learn when they might be located (at what point in time she is remembering). The core of the story, though, is Manjing's experience: the construction of a particular woman's identity, her attempts to maintain control, to shape her destiny, and the extent to which that destiny seems to shape her. But this perspective seems to be distorted, the story's strength deflated, the narrative focus muddied, by the way the film elevates Shujun's perspective to a status at least equal to that of Manjing's. One has to wonder to what extent casting decisions, and their attendant commercial calculations, are responsible for this. Leon Lai is one of the biggest box office draws/pop stars in Hong Kong: a decision to exaggerate the prominence of his character, at the expense of Wu Chien-lien's, makes sense in the currently (commercially) depressed world of Hong Kong cinema. And it seems to have worked: advertising of the film focuses on Lai, and box office figures for Eighteen Springs were quite respectable during its Hong Kong run. But the damage done to the film's narrative coherence is substantial.
This focus on Leon Lai should not obscure the achievement of Wu Chien-lien in the film's leading role. Finally, this younger actress of great promise (suggestions of which we've seen in major roles in Eat Drink Man Woman (1994), Treasure Hunt (1994), and Beyond Hypothermia (1996), the most significant of her 29 film roles to date) has a part that she deserves, and in which she can shine. Wu doesn't chose an easier, self-consciously melodramatic style for her portrayal of Shujun. Anita Mui, as Shujun's older sister, shows both the power and limitations of this option: she strikes an unforgettable set of gorgeously sinister poses, which seem expressly designed for the camera. But one is always aware that one is watching Anita Mui, larger-than-life, dazzling us on the screen.
Wu Chien-lien takes an opposite, far more difficult approach. Against the expectations imposed by the melodrama genre, she builds a character out of small, lightly sketched, delicately nuanced moments. Each in itself only hints at a full emotional world that lies beneath. But as they accumulate, as Wu's character slowly builds, the parts add up to a rich and very moving whole. Her approach neatly parallels what the film teaches about how character is formed: how this woman's personality is constructed out of various pieces, events, and reactions, out of a combination of resistances to and defeats by circumstance (or'fate', in the language of the film). When Wu shows Manjing's shock, despair, and determination to survive what's thrown at her, all of which play briefly across her face as she is told that Shujun has married someone else, we're witnessing great acting; that illuminates character, resonates with the film's structure, and at the same time subverts its overtly melodramatic form.
If this isn't a career defining performance, yet, it is only because the rest of the film doesn't give Wu Chien-lien as much support as she could use. The rest of the cast is well chosen. Anita Mui is brilliantly cast as Wu's older sister (both their resemblance and their contrasts are quite striking); Ge You does more than should be possible with the villain's role of Zhu Hongcai; Annie Wu and Huang Lei, and Wang Zhiwen provide fine work in supporting roles. Leon Lai fills space handsomely, but in his scenes with her, he is negative energy: you can almost see how hard Wu is working, how much energy she has to put out to make the scenes work (although they do).
A mixed achievement then, whose strengths more than outweigh its weaknesses. A mature, delicately drawn film, that ranks near Ann Hui's best. What is new, here, is how deeply Hui has explored the roots of a woman's identity. Eighteen Springs adopts the structure of melodrama, only to subvert it (a move which is not unexpected, given both melodrama's focus on female characters and lives, and its essentially patriarchal assumptions about those characters); inflecting it with a specific sense of time passing, one which acknowledges loss, but forestalls nostalgia. A re-constructed melodrama for a post-1997 Hong Kong.
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