Lou Ye Interview: “Spring Fever”
When officials at the state-controlled Film Bureau levelled a five-year filmmaking ban on Chinese writer-director Lou Ye (Purple Butterfly) in 2006—a harsh reprimand for unveiling his politically charged drama Summer Palace at Cannes that year without their approval—he did what any determined artist would under the circumstances: he went home and made another feature, right under the nose of the censors. It was a brave and headstrong move, considering Lou’s previous encounters with the bureau. His debut feature, Weekend Lover (1995), was banned for two years, and Suzhou River (2000), a moody, Shanghai-set twist on Vertigo that won top honors at the Rotterdam Film Festival, still cannot be shown in mainland China. But Summer Palace was a bigger act of defiance, as it violated China’s sensitivity to depictions of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, which are expressly forbidden, telling the 15-year story of a female provincial who leaves home to attend college, falls in love, and briefly gets swept up in the pro-democracy demonstrations at Beijing University. Lou’s periodic run-ins with the authorities have made headlines in recent years, and his knack for exploring taboo subject matter certainly hasn’t helped his cause at home. Yet his work has flourished on the international festival circuit, despite the harassment.
Lou’s latest drama, loosely inspired by the risqué writings of early-20th-century maverick Yu Dafu, is Spring Fever, the film he made in defiance of the aforementioned ban with funds from France and Hong Kong. Here, we are introduced to two men, travel agent Jiang Cheng (Qin Hao) and bookish Wang Ping (Wu Wei), embroiled in a passionate love affair. They steal moments together as they can—screwing feverishly at a backwoods retreat in the musky opening scene or making out in the back of a bookstore—before their relationship comes to a dead halt. Wang’s wife has hired a private investigator (Chen Sicheng) to follow him, and when he produces evidence of her husband’s indiscretions, she confronts Jiang at his office in a rage. Cutting Wang loose, Jiang slips back into his former life as a zesty drag performer. Embraced by his admirers but still disillusioned by romantic failure, he drifts toward Luo, the empathetic straight sleuth who’s been tailing him, and another complicated love affair blossoms. Shot surreptitiously in the eastern city of Nanjing with available light, Spring Fever is a deliriously erotic and anguished melodrama, where frenetic street scenes alternate with murky interiors in a dreamlike weave of events and locations, all bathed in cool dark tones. As always with the libidinal undercurrents of Lou’s films, sexuality is the measure and reflection of individual freedom, the lovers’ existential malaise representing social life under severe constraints. Read the rest of my interview at Filmmaker.