A pair of interlocking love triangles make up Lou Ye's Spring Fever, the director's first film since his 2006 Tiananmen romance, Summer Palace, led to a five-year ban from filmmaking in China. Financed internationally, Spring Fever was shot surreptitiously on the streets of Nanjing, and its subject matter — gay life in contemporary China — is well served by the film's ad hoc, undercover aesthetic of necessity.
We begin inside a car with two young men riding in comfortable silence and stopping to piss off a bridge. One, Wang Ping (Wu Wei), is married but closeted. The other, Jiang Cheng (Qin Hao), is as out as you can be in his circumstances; formerly a drag performer of some renown, he's now a travel agent prone to gaudy scarves. As they reach their destination, entering a house in the woods on a blustery March day, the camera moves away from its privileged position into one of surveillance, watching the men through the trees. And then it returns to them, tight on their nude bodies as they have sex inside.
The tension between these two points of view gives the opening scenes of Spring Fever a splash of intrigue: Who is watching? What does he want? In light of the politically charged Summer Palace, it's easy to imagine a movie in which the omnipresent Chinese authorities uncover the two lovers.
Lou, though, has a different set of revelations in mind: Wang's wife, Lin Xue (Jiang Jiaqi), has hired a photographer to tail him. The unveiling of her partner's secret life unhinges her, a scenario that will be repeated later in the film as Lou's focus shifts from his initial triangle to a second one involving Luo Haitao (Chen Sicheng), the shutterbug whose spying contributed to the dissolution of the first.
Spring Fever's focus is relentlessly personal, not political, though the pressure of repressive Chinese society does make a few hysterical scenes feel, to the Western eye, like throwbacks to the queer dramas of yesteryear. ("You want to ruin us?" Lin shrieks at Wang when she finds out.) But much of the movie is silence, its characters wordlessly smoking, staring, texting, or fucking. You may, at times, chuckle to recall that Spring Fever won a prize for its screenplay at Cannes. (The script is credited to Mei Feng, but the press notes make clear that Lou had a hand in it as well.)
There's not just silence but also darkness, with shots that, while thoughtfully composed, often brutally tax the low-light capabilities of Lou's digital cameras. Whole sequences go by in which nothing is visible onscreen but the tiniest glint of moon on skin. As a mood-establisher, Lou's underlit images are peerless; as a dramatic tool, they're underwhelming, as I realized when what I thought was one character's contemplative early-morning mountaintop sojourn turned out actually to be a suicide.
As a result, the film's few moments of flair stand out, especially a tear-stained karaoke duet and a candy-colored drag show. Artifice can, at times, illuminate a character's interior life more brightly than unadorned truth, and a little melodrama never hurt anyone. For long stretches of this tantalizing, romantic, aggravating film — until just before its extremely satisfying ending, in fact — I wished Lou had caught a little spring fever himself, cranked up the volume, and turned on the lights.