"How much sorrow can one man bear? As much as a river of spring water flowing east."
You ain't kiddin', brother.
The Spring River Flows East is a three-hour Chinese film from 1947 that works hard to earn the tag "epic melodrama." To call it a downer would be a huge understatement. That would be like calling a tornado a nice breeze.
Beginning in 1931 and spanning into the post-War period in Shanghai, The Spring River Flows East is the story of the Zhang family. Eldest son Zhongliang (Tao Jin) is a youthful idealist who is ready to do what it takes to mobilize his people and expel the Japanese who have invaded and settled parts of their country. Though he knows a few faster, more "artistic" women from around the factory where he works, he marries nice girl Sufen (Bai Yang), and they have a son together. When the resistance becomes a full-blown war, Zhongliang leaves for the front, where he will help with first aid for the troops. Sufen will stay behind with his parents and raise their son. Both sides of the battlefield end up being no picnic. Zhongliang is captured and barely escapes from the prison camps while his family nearly starves back in the village. Eventually, his father dies, and his the women of the clan only get away thanks to the efforts of resistance fighters led by Zhongmin, Zhongliang's younger brother.
But that's only the first hour.
Written and directed by Cai Chusheng and Zheng Junli, The Spring River Flows East seems as sprawling as the flowing water in its name, but is really a lot simpler than that once you boil it down. Unfortunately, it takes a while to figure this out for itself, and so it's rather dull and slow-going in its early stages. The wartime footage, though often quite impressive for its scope, is generally overdone, bordering on propaganda in its unrelenting bleakness and vilification of the Japanese (not that they don't necessarily deserve it). There are moments of great power, such as the hanging of Zhongliang's father, but a lot of it is stiff and stagy, having more in common with silent Hollywood cinema than the Tinsel Town output from the same time period.
Things start to get pretty good at the end of the first part. (The Spring River Flows East was released in two halves, "Eight Years of Turmoil" and "Before and After Dawn," and it's presented on two DVDs here.) Tao Jin gets a particularly showy, yet effective, scene where he drunkenly decries his own wicked ways, and Bai Yang reveals a very comfortable, natural screen presence when her character starts working with refugee children (you'd have an easy time convincing me that she's Maggie Cheung's grandmother if I didn't already know better). The real story here is about the family, and the rise and fall of its idealistic son. Once he is off the frontlines, Zhongliang falls in with his old crowd, becoming a kept man thanks to the scheming dancer Lizheng (Shu Xiuwen). He gets a job in Chungqing and works his way up the ladder, and all the while his forgotten family awaits his return back in Shanghai. Eventually, though, the Japanese surrender to the Allied forces, ending WWII and causing them to withdraw from China, and business will take the errant husband and father back to his hometown, where his past will eventually collide with his present.
Only, The Spring River Flows East slows back down in its final act. The party scene where husband and wife are to be reunited goes on for an excruciatingly extended length of time, including more than one "near miss" where Sufen is literally right next to Zhongliang and neither of them turn their head to see the other. Don't expect much joy in their reunion, either. The end of The Spring River Flows East is so bleak, it would cause the dead of night to shiver.
When it's all said and done, The Spring River Flows East is an intermittently compelling curiosity from the past. I am not sure the good really outweighs the tedious here, particularly not over three hours and with a below-average DVD release. Still, if you're fascinated by cinema history or at all interested in Chinese art and history, it might be worth turning an eye to at least once.
A further wrinkle is that whatever source material the studio used to master this DVD had Chinese subtitles burned in, and so throughout the totality of The Spring River Flows East, the English translation appears on top of white kanji.