The story of three generations of women living uneasily beneath the same roof in contemporary China, Yang Li Na’s Spring Tide is realistic, socially profound, but ultimately does little to hold the viewer’s attention.
The film’s characters are some of the most genuine examples of modern urban middle-class Chinese women in cinema. Well-acted, they mirror those families in which the new educated and affluent working generation silently consider their Mao-era grandparents as nationalistic, hypocritically selfish, and eternally prone to victimhood. Conversely, Spring Tide’s grandmother, Ji Ming Lan (Elaine Jin), finds her daughter Guo Jian Bo (Lei Hao) individualistic, aloof, unpatriotic, ungrateful, and an empty life in nice clothes. Beneath them is the future: 9-year old Guo Wan Ting (Jun Xi Qu) may be living with them but is growing up in a developed nation that will supersede them both.
The troubled generation gap is played out through one-sided arguments met with silence. Grandma continually belittles her daughter while simultaneously proclaiming she is the one suffering, an attitude catalysed by a grim secret about her ex-husband. Jian Bo, in return, says nothing, living her home life through silence and shut doors, waiting for time alone with her daughter or an escape to work or friends. In one scene, when her mother cannot hear, she declares ‘I will never feel sorry for you’, a sign they have psychoanalysed each other to the point of loathing. Of the three, only Wan Ting seems to enjoy life. Spring Tide is the Chinese equivalent of a Ken Loach film, with all the joie de vivre that entails.
Critical acclaim has come in the film’s direction for its portrayal of contemporary China. Working parents living with their own parents is a common family dynamic, as is not having siblings to share the burden of an opinionated generation. Furthermore, conversations and thinking patterns draw out a nation sitting halfway between past Communist-era patriotism and future capitalist independence.
One instance is a discussion in which Uncle Zhou (Wen Bo Li), Grandma’s new compassionate beau, discusses journalism. He admires nations possessing a free press, because mature countries need need tools to ensure independent and fair judiciaries. Grandma’s response: Shut up. You either love the country or you leave.
Such discussions come directly from the dinner tables of a society in which ‘ai guo’ (literally: love the country) is an educational directive but the affluent class has seen what the rest of the world has to offer. And such discussions are interesting. However, they do not substitute for a plot.
What actually happened in Spring Tide? It is hard to remember. At one point Ming Lan went to a restaurant and sang red songs. There was a bike ride. A sudden health issue allows a monologue revealing repressed feelings, which feels like a convenient, almost lazy device. Jian Bo does go to a boyfriend’s cramped home for drink and sex once, and does her job twice, but mostly the plot is a repeating domestic cycle of complaining, silence, and release.
For international viewers wanting to see behind the doors of middle-class urban life in China, Spring Tide is an interesting stop. From the apartment design to the door decorations, through the potential disconnect between generations as old and new ideologies collide, with the knowledge those currently in primary school will inherit it all, modern life is here. Yet audiences should also be prepared: the social commentary is mightier than the story.
One final shot, a metaphor involving water and youth, very much sums up the viewing experience: intelligent, aware, and going on for ages without anything actually happening.