Zhang Yibai is possibly one of the most overlooked directors of the Chinese film industry. Spring Subway is his first film and already has all his talents on display. It's also a perfect film for gaining international attention, still almost nobody seems to know about Yibai's work. I've wrote about Lost Indulgence, Yibai's latest film, before but even that film seems to have slipped by most people. All the more reason to write about this neat little gem.
Spring Subway is a film floating in between the realms of arthouse and mainstream cinema. It's also nested somewhere between Chinese and HK cinema, so maybe it's this duality that's keeping the film from finding its target audience. At the core of the film lies a dramatic love story about a couple coming to Beijing. Seven years have passed and even though they are still very much in love with each other, small incidents are slowly driving them apart.
The titular "Spring" seems to refer to the lighter and fresher atmosphere found in the film. It's not your typical Chinese poor man's social drama, but more grounded in a modern/urban Chinese society. When the couple is introduced they come off as a gentle, somewhat quirky combination of two lovable people. Yibai seems to be constructing a setup for a lightweight romantic drama, and during the first 20-30 minutes lures the audience in using this hook.
Slowly though, the relationship between the two changes. Lies enter their relationship, and even though they are always just inches away from clearing the skies between them, small and insignificant details prevent them from levelling with each other. Small things grow bigger and slowly the gap becomes hard to bridge. These key moments are often shown through daydream-like sequences or voice-overs, underlining the difference between what is being said, what is thought and how that affects their relationship.
Visually Yibai has nothing more to prove. He applies a more modern look than most of his peers, but the use of color is still typically Chinese. Sometimes even a little reminiscent of Wong Kar-Wai's work, with lots of greens and reds composing the bulk of the color palette. Still, it is quite refreshing to see them used in a more modern/urban setting. The camera work itself is impeccable, stylish and almost dreamy. The score is equally nice, with traditional Chinese sounds and instruments mixed in with a more contemporary sound, yet still in line with the romantic atmosphere of the film. It's not a score that begs for attention, but it surfaces at just the right times in just the right places.
Considering the titular Spring, the light tone of the beginning and the happy couple setup, the way Yibai forces the couple apart is surprisingly painful. The first half hour makes sure you feel for these people, but each failed attempt to get back closer together becomes more and more bitter, to the point where you're starting to wonder where Yibai is going with all of this. Luckily the ending didn't feel out of place and suited the film. No cop out at all, but the only ending this film deserved.
Spring Subway is a film that starts off pretty jolly and cute, yet delivers some small but bitter punches throughout its running time. Yibai does a magnificent job at both romantic and dramatic angles and delivers a beautifully shot and scored film, revolving around a lovable couple. There are some tiny side stories also able to touch in all their reduced simplicity, added to reinforce the theme of the film. They aren't really necessary additions as the core story is strong enough, but they do provide some welcome relief from time to time.
The inability to communicate has always been one of my favored dramatic themes, one often found in Asian dramas. Spring Subway answers to that description, although the execution of the film is more frivolous and less minimalistic than usually the case. It's interesting to see the little details that make people grow apart, wrapped within a film that's entertaining and simply magnificent to look at. Highly recommended.