When a movie takes it upon itself to exorcise a society’s moral and sexual hang-ups, the process can be both exhilarating and exhausting to watch. If the filmmaker’s attempt to play cultural crusader elicits something less than the intended shock and awe, we are left wondering what all the fuss is about, and whether the taboos at hand have not already become old news. Following in the footsteps of such recent hot-blooded provocations as the New French Extremity and the marathon sex in Ang Lee’s PRC-censored Lust, Caution, Lou Ye’s Spring Fever opens with two men, Jiang Cheng (Qin Hao) and Wang Ping (Wu Wei), making their way to a secluded shack in the woods for an afternoon fuck. Cloaked in heavy shadows, their tryst becomes an act of disappearance. “I love you,” one whispers, his wedding ring gleaming in the dark.
Steadfastly flesh-focused, Spring Fever drifts from one sweaty, murkily lit encounter to the next, manufacturing enough drama along the way for a pair of overlapping love triangles. The first quickly disintegrates when Wang’s wife enlists a private investigator (Chen Sicheng) to follow the two lovers and, upon obtaining evidence of their affair, stomps into Jiang’s office to scold and out him in front of his colleagues. After cutting ties with the emotionally unstable Wang, Jiang returns to the safe bosom of Nanjing’s gay nightlife, where he is embraced as a charismatic drag starlet. Soon enough he finds himself inconveniently smitten with the spy who’s been trailing him, a puppy-eyed heartthrob who also happens to be romantically involved with a woman.
Sex is so sanitized in most films that it’s understandable why its deglamorized depiction is still considered some sort of artistic victory. But Lou isn’t merely interested in coital verisimilitude. His two most recent films may remind American viewers of the late Sixties and early Seventies, when X-rated fare was elevated as edgy, serious art redefining the zeitgeist. Lou uses the emotional undercurrents of intercourse as an entry point for exploring a wider social malaise, so that sex is never just sex—it’s a catharsis of an entire generation’s existential suffering and political anxiety. By weighing his characters’ libidos down with all the dashed hopes of the youths who lived through the 1989 Tiananmen massacre, Lou may have marred Summer Palace (06) with a tone of shrill hysteria, but this also gave that film its unmistakable passion. Spring Fever, on the other hand, employs the messiness of down-low gay life as a stand-in for shiftless, apathetic young adulthood in urban China—a metaphor that makes all the male-on-male action on screen look like an endless cycle of boredom and self-annihilation.
Chinese cinema has offered its fair share of anguished material over the years, but what sets Lou apart from his Sixth Generation peers is his unwavering commitment to personal, subjective experience. You won’t find very many Jia-like long shots in his work; instead, there’s jittery handheld cinematography and dreamlike editing that emphasizes the myriad sensations of the body moving within a disorienting cityscape. Perhaps even more distinctive is that, where the history of Chinese melodrama has tended to depict romances that entail painful compromise or self-denial, Lou consistently envisions love as an all-consuming, destructive force to which his characters have no choice but to submit.
By the end, Spring Fever has taken this notion to new sadistic extremes, leaving in its wake a suicide and a gruesome attempted murder. Wallowing in unmitigated bleakness, Mei Feng’s Cannes-feted screenplay misses the chance to explore thematic angles that might have distinguished it from being a dreary Happy Together wannabe. Nanjing is buried underneath layers of dark blues and grays, preventing Spring Fever from redeeming itself as a rare contemporary portrait of this vital city. In his determination to position the film as a universal love story, Lou sacrifices the political engagement and specificity that makes the work of queer auteurs like Cui Zi’en so valuable. When Spring Fever finally ends with an achingly meditative quote from Yu Dafu, it reframes itself as a tribute to this modern Chinese author’s pioneering exploration of sexuality, but also highlights how miserably Lou has failed to learn from his predecessor’s richly emotional, humanistic worldview.