Lou Ye is a poet of the flesh, and his new film is another woozy ode to longing. During Spring Fever's stunning opening, the filmmaker cuts from a flower serenely drifting across water to two men exiting a car on a ferociously windy day to take a piss by the side of the road. Dissonant and jarring, the film's sounds and images oscillate between lust and frustration, and as the past and present are hauntingly blurred, so too are the identities of the story's characters. It's a fetching audio-visual brew invigorated by fiercely spontaneous performances, but Spring Fever, like Purple Butterfly before it, reveals Lou's propensity for losing himself to the soap-operatic.
The film blooms early, promising greatness by evoking Jules and Jim and Happy Together throughout a series of sexy, tumultuous scenes that depict the anxiety that consumes a woman (Jiang Jiaqi) who learns that her husband (Wu Wei) is having an affair with another man (Qin Hao) after hiring a detective (Chen Sicheng) to spy on him. But Lou is more confused than smitten by his characters' queerness, and in its second half the story is choked by contrivance as the detective and his girlfriend (Tan Zhou) indulge in a threesome with the other man. As this trio's personal dramas play out inside thumping clubs and across dreary highways, the film becomes a confused pantomime of fear and disaffection, succumbing to a torpidness from which it never recovers.
In Lou's earlier Summer Palace, the private lives of young dreamers excitingly play out against a catastrophic national nightmare. There you got a sense of how the personal informs the social and how the social bites back. But in Spring Fever, you don't even get a sense that the characters' escapades are a test of a country's sexual tolerance. Though the ambling, provocatively drab story is set in Nanjing, Lou never bothers to take the city's moral temperature—thus failing to justify why he calls it a "grey zone" in an interview he gave for the film that appears in the press notes. Instead, he gives us scenes of characters Karaoke-ing to drippy pop songs, and fills the screen with text from Chinese author Yu Dafu's books, in effect telling us that his characters are impossibly sad—nothing more, nothing less. As lived-in as the film's images, that melancholia in the end feels nothing but canned and trite.