Kaiwang chuntian de dixie
director: Zhang Yibai
writer and producer: Liu Fendou
cinematography: Zhao Xiaodong & Gao Fei
editor: Liu Miaomiao
design: An Bin
music: Zhang Yadong
sound: Wu Lala
Electric Orange Entertainment
Geng Le ... Liu Jianbin
Xu Jinglei ... Chen Xiaohui
Zhang Yang ... Lao Hu
Wang Ning ... Li Chuan
Fan Wei ... Wang Yao
Ke Lan ... Saleswoman
Gao Yuanyuan ... Tian Ai
Tu Qiang ... Da Ming
Reviewed by Shelly Kraicer at the Udine Far East Film Festival (April, 2002)
Spring Subway is one of the most promising recent debut features from China. First time director Zhang Yibai, who has worked in television and music video, applies his flair for flashy technique to the service of this thoroughly up-to-date offbeat urban romance set in contemporary Beijing.
Zhang, along with screenwriter/producer Liu Fendou, chose to make an officially approved picture, which makes perfect financial sense for this, the first production of the new Beijing-based independent production house Electric Orange Entertainment. With the Film Bureau's approval, Spring Subway becomes a still too rare example of an ambitious independent Chinese film. The filmmakers tread a narrow path blazed by indie production company IMAR's Crazy Love Soup and Shower, both of which were co-written by Liu Fendou. Spring Subway shows how this pathway works: it avoids major state-owned studios; can reach local audiences; therefore boasts a welcome commercial potential; and, as a bonus, retains international appeal. As such, it forms a complementary alternative to the "sixth generation" films that, avoiding the censorship approval process, can't profitably and openly be distributed within China.
Ruggedly handsome Geng Le (In the Heat of the Sun , Beijing Rocks), and currently hot mainland pop-idol Xu Jinglei (Spicy Love Soup) both do the best work yet of their young careers playing a twenty-something couple lost in the doldrums of a seven-year-old marriage that seems to be coming apart for no particular reason. Xu Jinglei plays Xiaohui, who works in a design company and is drawn to a friendship cum affair with a customer (a nice sloe-eyed turn by Zhang Yang, the director of Shower and Quitting). Geng Le plays Jianbin, who just lost his job, but maintains the pretence of going to work by riding the Beijing subway all day. There, he observes a clutch of fellow passengers in the process of tentatively falling in love. The film jumps among these different romances he eavesdrops on: a garrulously jovial pudgy baker woos the equally voluble saleswoman of his dreams; and a curiously shy slacker gropes furtively in the overhead straps with a young commuter's all-too-willing hand. Extra-marital emotional peril looms when Jian Bin finds himself drawn to an injured schoolteacher, whom he gently, though anonymously cares for as she recovers in hospital.
A sense of mute, frustrated yearning pervades the story, most of whose characters seem frustrated in their inability to express their feelings. The central couple could restore their marriage if only they could bring themselves to speak directly to each other, But their strenuous attempts to do anything but talk seem to exhaust their energies, pushing them to find companionship and love elsewhere.
Though Zhang Yibai seems indebted to Wong Kar-wai's stylistic panache and copious use of confessional voice-overs, he's no simple Wong acolyte. Clean, inventive framings constantly counterpoise the emotionally confused characters in a crisp, Ikea-furnished, polished mirror-glass world of tangible contemporaneity. The commodities all know their places: it's just the human inhabitants of Beijing's anonymously post-modern streetscapes who seem lost, fragile, insufficiently clear about who they are and what they want. Zhang is a brilliant montage-maker. He constructs playfully complex scenes (and even an entire closing sequence) out of surprising cuts and contrasts, changes in perspective. He even dares to play with alterations of speed and narrative direction that, in retrospect, seem naturally, directly expressive.
The music by Zhang Yadong (a protégé of China's finest pop singer and Chungking Express co-star Faye Wong) is superb. In no small measure responsible for knitting together the film's unusually disparate elements, Zhang's score gives them shape, a unity of texture and a mutual resonance that makes them sing.
This may be one of the most thoroughly "international" Beijing films yet. With its cappuccino drinkers and sleekly modern settings, it could just as easily be a story from any urban capital: San Francisco, Tokyo, London. Greater than the sum of its parts, Spring Subway whirls forward with a giddy rush of feeling - it's at the same time romantic and post-romantic, which should please both paying audiences and jaded critics - flaunting a new, state of the art flair for the global urban culture all its own.
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