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The Spring River Flows East

Director: Cai Chusheng, Zheng Junli 1947

This epic drama begins in 1930s Shanghai: poor but honest Su Fen (Bai Yang) and Zhang Zhongliang (Tao Jin) meet in the factory where they work. They marry and live with Zhang's parents in one room of a small house. Zhong Liang's brother and sister-in-law work for the revolution in the northeast. As the Japanese Army approaches Shanghai, Zhong Liang flees to Chongqing with Nationalist sympathizers-namely a Miss Wang Lizhen (Shangguan Yunzhu).

Unable to contact his family for months, Zhong Liang has no idea that his father has died and his wife has borne him a son. In fact, his new life in Chongqing keeps him so busy that he forgets about his family left behind in wartime Shanghai, and eight years pass without contact between them. While Zhong Liang works his way up the ladder of success by using Miss Wang's guanxi, Su Fen, her child and mother-in-law slip deeper and deeper into poverty.

At the end of the war, homelessness and starvation threaten Su Fen and her family. Assuming that Zhong Liang has died in the war, she goes out to find work. But with her previous experience as a factory worker, Su Fen can only find work as a maid in the home of a wealthy Shanghai family that have just returned from Chongqing. The family turn out to be relatives of Miss Wang, now Zhong Liang's spoiled and jealous wife. When Miss Wang and Zhong Liang return to Shanghai, Miss Wang's cousin throws a large party at which Sun Fen must serve the guests. Finally, she comes face to face with her long lost husband, now married into a wealthy, bourgeois family.

The last half hour of the film sees Zhong Liang struggling to pacify his spoiled wife while his impoverished family waits in the wings for him to recognize their existence. Distraught and heartbroken, Su Fen heads to the Bund with her son in tow...

A prime example of Shanghai's leftist film-making past, The Spring River Flows East stars two of the biggest female stars of that era: Bai Yang and Shangguan Yunzhu. Bai revels in the melodramatic role of Su Fen, while Shangguan's role as the spoiled playgirl challenges the likes of Alex in Fatal Attraction - but 50 years earlier.

Despite the melodrama and rather obvious bourgeoisie versus proletariat plot line, The Spring River remains nothing less than a masterpiece. The diversity of Shanghai society at that time is revealed in this film that captures the imagination for the entire playing time of 3 hours.

(Cityweekend January 15, 2003)


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