Eighteen Springs (1997)
Directed by: Ann Hui
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Award at the Hong Kong Film Awards 1998:
Awards at the Hong Kong Film Critics Society Awards 1998:
A story of the romance between Gu Manjing (Wu Chien-Lien) and Shen Shijun (Leon Lai) and the struggles they face when their respective families do not approve of their relationship. Trying to steer Gu in the "right" direction is her sister Manlu (Anita Mui), herself once a prostitute but now married to a wealthy man who has set his eyes on Gu...
Ann Hui had previously done well working from an Eileen Chang novel when she directed Love In A Fallen City for Shaw Brother's in 1984 and she attempts once more here with Eighteen Springs, despite the general consensus being that these adaptations of Eileen Chang's work remains hard to transfer to screen. Set in Chang's native Shanghai, starting somewhere in the 1930s, it's an expected tale of sublime evil and tragedy coming from her, once again dealing with the complex and strict nature of relations within Chinese society. It seems very fitting to have Hui directing as she's woven harsh commentary into her efforts prior and she strikes once again with engrossing, if not terribly life affirming or fast paced results.
Just in case you've been steered completely wrong, you should know that Ann Hui rarely provides visual jazz, flair and noise. It's for an audience accustomed to stare at much of nothing going on but that much of nothing of course serves a purpose and is an appreciated choice here. Shot in synch sound Mandarin, Eighteen Springs feels more like a Mainland Chinese drama and definitely takes cues from the low-key directorial style of various directors of Chinese cinema. Even if that's not the inspiration, it's a fitting choice on Ann Hui's behalf but your patience may vary throughout as she's in no hurry.
The romance up until an evil turning points does have the classic angle to it. Two introverted souls, the youngest in their respective families and an innocent, pure love between them. Well, this is Chinese society and Hui kicks into gear her main story when she clearly spells out the main meaning of the film close to an hour into it. Behind closed doors, an accepted behaviour goes on where innocence and romance should be crushed in favour of economical prospering and social status. Certain key lines linger long after the film and while extremely quiet and low-key, the inhumanity on display makes for a subtle, haunting ride. Some may tune out due to that but the comments made by Hui, working off Eileen Chang's story and Joe Chan's script, makes for an involving but highly downbeat story.
Not knowing how the source material plays out, one of the few, or rather only, niggle of the film is due to a plethora of characters introduced but it's obvious much running time was needed to flesh out them all. For instance Annie Wu's Cuizhi is an integral part on paper but Hui chooses to put focus on characters more closely connected to the main core of the production. To do justice to the written work, Cuizhi obviously needs to be featured but a compromise clearly was made. Talking production, we're treated to a very impressive one but Hui never lets it get the best of her and it comes off as suitably sparse. Those sparse aspects such as cinematography, production and costume design are expertly put together and aids the story supremely well though.
Performances are genuinely excellent to boot and helps Eighteen Springs rise to great levels. Leon Lai may be a plank still but I'd be damned if he isn't perfectly cast despite! Shen is a shy, introverted character who finds an equal in Wu Chien-Lien's Manjing. The two plays terrifically off each other, being well in tune with the subtle direction by Hui. Wu Chien-Lien is the movie's true standout and once again shows how much she can project in terms of emotions of extremely varying degree, just by adjusting her facial and body mannerisms ever so slightly. Few actresses could've nailed the real warmth and humanity of Manjing but Wu proves once again how sorely missed her immense talent is. Sadly no longer with us is Anita Mui, whose supporting role is equally good and it's an intriguing character that corresponds very well to the themes of the film. Manlu has made her choices but glimpses of the past reveals a common bond between the sister's that showed she once tried to overcome social rules and regulations. It's a layered performance that rightly was awarded. Where was Wu Chien-Lien's award though? Mainland talent was also brought on board in the form of Ge You (To Live), Wang Zhiwen (Love Battlefield, The Emperor and the Assassin) and Huang Lei (Life On A String).
Eighteen Springs is an expertly told drama by the ever so critical Ann Hui. The Chinese society doesn't get a flattering portrayal here but it probably doesn't deserve it and fact of the matter is, the strict control over relationships resides in multiple cultures around the world. Hui's portrayal is sad and basically no glimpses of light remains to be found. Never let it be said that it doesn't make for compelling cinema though. Eighteen Springs is, for the audience that wants it.
Once available on dvd by Mei Ah, Garry's Trading presents an equally average disc. Whether or not Mei Ah still holds rights, I cannot say but the film deserves better. That being said, the 1.66:1 framed presentation is clean and the conscious muted colours are presented decently. The transfer lacks detail and depth though.
The original synch sound Mandarin Dolby Digital 2.0 track presents the dialogue and the selected times the score kicks in well. A Cantonese 2.0 dub is also included.
The imbedded Chinese/English subtitles presents a well-worded translation with little spelling errors. One scene briefly has a white background which makes the subtitles hard to read but otherwise they remain fully readable throughout. There are no extras.
Thanks to tinlun for providing the Chinese title of the theme song.
reviewed by Kenneth Brorsson