The Spring River Flows East
R2 - United Kingdom - British Film Institute
Review written by and copyright: James-Masaki Ryan (5th February 2017).
The Film

“The Spring River Flows East” 《一江春水向东流》 (1947)

For a company event at a textile factory in Shanghai, China, company employee Zhongliang (played by Jin Tao) takes the stage to MC the festivities. While there are dances and other stage acts performed, Zhongliang takes a moment to urge the factory workers to think about the people in Manchuria fighting the Japanese. This leads to a bit of trouble for him with the higher ups, as they wanted the event to be a joyous one and not a political one regardless of the situation up north. On a happier side, Zhongliang is in love with Sufen (played by Bai Yang). Love leads to marriage and also a child for them, but the happiness does not last long due to the circumstances of war.

With the outbreak of the Second Sino-Japanese War and the Japanese forces moving southward, Chinese citizens are in a state of panic and mass exodus. Zhongling helps the resistance by being a medic and Sufen, their young son Kangsheng, and his mother to move out to the countryside where they meet up with his father and younger brother Zhongmin. Hardships follow on both sides. Zhongling is captured by the Japanese and even though he is able to escape, he has nowhere to go with no shelter, money, or safety, and struggles to survive while avoiding capture again. For Sufen, life gets harder as the Japanese come to the countryside and start controlling the villagers for their share of farm crops with severe punishment for those who don’t comply.

Zhongling’s unfortunate situation turns more positive when he encounters Wang Lizhen (played by Shu Xiuwen) who he knew from the dance event at the textile factory. She helps him get back on his feet by getting a job at her rich family’s company and starting a new opportunity with life. While his life starts looking upward, he still has thoughts of his wife that he left behind, and it would be a full eight years later that they would be able to reunite… and not in the best circumstances.

“How much sorrow can one man have to bear? As much as a river of spring water flowing east.”

This is from a poem by Li Yu - the last ruler of the Southern Tang dynasty and gives the film its title. The film was produced in 1947 - only two years after the end of World War II and taking place both during the war and just after the end of the war, so the themes shown and many of the plot points were within the minds of the people very deeply being only recent events. As the film shows about a decade’s worth of time from the start to the end, the film was an epic one in length - a total of 190 minutes, which was divided into two parts and shown theatrically back to back. Even though the film takes place in a reality and based off the events of war, the theme of a man leaving his family to go off to a rich place of comfort was a story from hundreds of years ago - with "Madam White is Kept Forever under the Thunder Peak Tower" (白娘子永鎮雷峰塔) being the prime source. Published as part of “Stories to Caution the World” (警世通言) in 1624, the book was collection of moral stories retold over generations through the Ming Dynasty. In “Madam White”, a man leaves behind his family after being seduced by a rich countess which happens to be a serpent in disguise and while it takes him time to awaken from the seduction, it is too late to rekindle what was lost with his family. Kenji Mizoguchi’s masterpiece from 1953 “Ugetsu Monogatari” also uses the story as a basis for the film, although the stories are credited to Akinari Ueda who used the traditional Chinese stories of “Stories to Caution the World” and rewrote them for a Japanese audience. Japan based American writer Lafcadio Hearn (AKA Yakumo Koizumi) wrote a similar short story titled “Reconciliation” in 1900 which was the basis for an episode of the 1965 film “Kwaidan” directed by Masaki Kobayashi, and so the influences of the Chinese stories were retold elsewhere over time. It is easy to fault the male character in both the story and the film of “The Spring River Flows East” as an uncaring and selfish man who abandoned his family. He does go through the moral dilemma of having that secret but he is also loyal to the people who gave him a second opportunity but it escalated way too far. Seeing the contrast of the lives that Zhongling and Sufen experienced apart during the eight years is like night and day. He was off at parties, working seriously in an office environment, and sleeping in a western style bed. Sufen was teaching refugee children, barely having enough food to eat for her and the family, seeing Zhongling’s father killed by the Japanese, and constantly living in fear. Zhongling was living the dream of many Chinese during WWII - a comfortable life without fear. Sufen was living what people had nightmares about.

The first part, subtitled "The Eight War-Torn Years" chronicled the meeting of the couple and their eight years of separation. The second part, subtitled “The Dawn” was the consequences of the couple meeting again after the lengthy separation. The first film certainly packs in too much for its runtime, quickly going through Zhongling and Sufen’s love, marriage, and birth of their first child in a quick succession that it almost feels like a montage rather than a real emphasis on their relationship. As they are separated very quickly it does not give enough depth on their characters and the rest of the film is filled with moments of them longing for each other while surviving. The rapid pace of the beginning of the first film is also a sharp contrast to the second film which was much better paced than the first. The directing is not at all “bad” but considering that the Chinese film industry developed very little in the years during the war, there was a lot of craft to catch up to in comparison to America, European, or Japanese films of the time. The use of badly damaged stock footage for the war scenes, the awkward cutting of the dog attack, and the almost laughably fake looking sets for supposed outdoor scenes are some things that suffer due to the lack of experience and technical work. Regardless of the negative aspects looked in hindsight, the film was a massive success in China in 1947. It stayed in theaters for a record of 3 months and had 70 million tickets sold which was a major accomplishment considering the poor conditions many people were still going through postwar. Even to this day it is considered one of the greatest Chinese films ever made and certainly one of the most important.

Note this is a region 2 PAL DVD which can only be played back on region 2 and region free DVD or Blu-ray players with PAL capability

Video

The British Film Institute presents the film in 576i in the original (non-anamorphic) 1.33:1 theatrical aspect ratio in the PAL format. The film was newly restored by the China Film Archive and the transfer is taken from the new master. Previous editions of the film had bad contrast, some had burned-in Chinese subtitles on the print, and a lot of damage. The new remastered edition has no burned-in subtitles (except two segments which will be explained in the audio/subtitles section) and the print has been significantly cleaned - though not perfect. Some scenes look wonderful, with very little damage, good grey levels, and deep blacks. But other scenes have scratch marks remaining and some softness to the image. Luckily the film looks very good overall and a step up from any previous editions. Also considering that the release is for DVD only and not for Blu-ray it is a shame that a high definition version has not been made available.

The film is available to watch in one continuous setting which runs 178:52, with 4% PAL speedup.
The film can also be viewed in two parts:
- Part 1 "The Eight War-Torn Years" (90:58)
- Part 2 "The Dawn" (87:53)

Audio

Mandarin Dolby Digital 1.0
The remastered soundtrack is offered in the original mono sound. Like the picture, the sound has been remastered but unfortunately suffers from a lot of issues. Music sounds very hollow, sound effects like clapping or bombfire sound tinny and weak, and there are some issues of audio dropout or hissing. Dialogue on the other hand is intelligible but there are echoey issues with the speeches, most likely due to the on-set recording process without soundproof environments. Later Chinese films made sure to do post-production audio rather than on-set to both cater to Mandarin and Cantonese audiences and also to avoid echoey and unclear voices.

As mentioned prior, there are two segments that have burned-in Chinese subtitles. They are both songs so the subtitles make it easier to understand and possibly sing along. Strangely the second song’s subtitles are partially cut off at the bottom which I am not sure this was due to the remastering or if the original elements had that them printed slightly off.

There are optional English subtitles in a white font for the main feature. The subtitles translate all the dialogue and the songs though not all of the names in the credits are subtitled.

Extras

"A Stilted City. Chungking. China." 1930 short (1:27)
What was life like in Chongqing in 1930? This travelogue short from 1930 features footage of the city with English text intertitles for explanation. The picture is quite good with fine detail, with the intertitles being stillframes. The music is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo and it is left uncredited on the disc. I believe the score is by Ruth Chan but I may be wrong. This film was partially featured in the BFI released documentary compilation film “Around China with a Movie Camera” (2015). The film can also be seen on The BFI Player and the BFI YouTube channel, but with no audio.
in 576i PAL, in non-anamorphic 1.33:1, Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo with English intertitles.

Considering the importance of the film there are no extras on the remastering, no interviews, no commentary, not even a booklet which is extremely unfortunate.

Overall

“The Spring River Flows East” is not a perfect film by any means but is undeniably an important piece of Chinese film history. The story was remade in 2005 as a 30-part TV series and continues to be rediscovered - now more than ever with a restored version available. The BFI DVD gives it a fair presentation but the lack of extras and a lack of a high definition release are sorely disappointing. Still a recommended watch.

The Film: B Video: B Audio: C Extras: D Overall: B-

 


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