Warm Spring Review
If you take it purely on face value, Tana Wulan’s Warm Spring is a sweet film of the love and self-sacrifice between an old man, a poor farmer in a country village and a 7 year-old orphan who he takes into his care. It’s the kind of film the Chinese do so well, with cute kids, beautiful sun-drenched landscapes of green rolling mountains and fertile countryside bearing the produce of the poor people working the land. When things don’t really add up however, when there are too many contrivances, stock characterisations and appeals to one’s sentiments, either you have to question the ability of the filmmaker to tell a story with any degree of realism or originality, or you have to suspect there’s another agenda at work.
Two Chinese films in particular come to mind when watching Warm Spring and neither of them are without their agendas (there are also Zhang Yimou’s films of Chinese peasant life, but those are completely up-front in their humanitarian intentions to show the circumstances of poor people and particularly women in remote regions of China). There are cute kids galore in Zhang Yuan’s Little Red Flowers, but they are used to show how innocence and freedom can be stifled by State-imposed conformity and rigid uniformity. More closely related to Warm Spring, in Wu Tian-Ming’s The King of Masks, a young girl is forced to pretend she is a boy and work as an assistant to street performer in order to survive in a world where a one-child policy makes a young boy a valuable asset to poor people and a female child only a burden.
Having such an agenda isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it depends on how much a director is willing to twist facts and human nature to make his point and Warm Spring just seems too obviously manipulative to really convince. Both her parents dead and now her grandmother also, 7-year old Xiao Hua (Zhang Yan) has run away from Shanke village to escape a couple she was placed with who started mistreating her and neglecting her once they had their own child. Frightened and tearful, she comes to trust an old farmer (Tian Chengren) who looks after her and effectively becomes her new grandfather. The old man is poor and cannot afford to feed and clothe a child, but Auntie Chatty and Auntie Chubby and all the other villagers pitch in with rice, eggs and clothes for the pretty little girl. Of course, her new life isn’t quite so wonderful - Xiao Hua’s presence is resented by Jasmine (Hao Yang), the childless wife of the old man’s son Baozhu (Yu Weijie), a mean, cruel and heartless bitch who does everything she can to make the young girl’s life a misery, stomping on her windmill and even dragging her out of the village to try to give her away to another couple.
The broadness of such characterisation is rather heavy-handed, the film capitalising quite unashamedly on such heart-wrenching conflicts between the cruel auntie and the tearful child. It’s not so much that this is overly calculating and sentimental however as unconvincing in characterisation terms. The purpose of this conflict is clear, showing the importance many families place on having their own child. Jasmine and her husband evidently feel inadequate and take their resentment out on the young orphan – here is a child that no-one wants when they can’t have one of their own, not even a girl. It’s also the aim to show how valuable a young girl can be, in that even if they don’t have a boy, families should accept the blessing of a daughter who can be hard-working and look after elderly relatives.
The problem is the extremes the film feels it needs to push the characterisation to make this point. In this respect, what is worse than expecting us to believe that Auntie Jasmine’s initial cruel behaviour is a normal reaction to her being childless, is not just the inevitable turnaround, but the fact of 7 year-old Xiao Hua’s saintly (if somewhat tearful) understanding of her auntie’s problems, never holding the terrible treatment she receives at her hand against her, despite having run away from a previous couple who mistreated her. If it all doesn’t quite ring true, the film tries hard to make it work through the charm of an engaging Zhang Yan as Xiao Hua, a manipulative score to push your sentiments in the right direction, and a tearful ending that you’d need a heart of stone not to be moved by.
Warm Spring is released in the UK by Escapi. The film is presented on a single-layer disc, in PAL format, and is encoded for Region 2.
If you’ve seen or read the reviews of the Escapi releases of Endless Way and Gada Meilin you’ll know not to set expectations of image quality too high and if so, then Warm Spring won’t disappoint too much. The 1.75:1 transfer inevitably is non-anamorphic, but the image has a decent tone and colouration and is not overly contrasted. That makes it adequate for viewing, but really it’s barely even that. Extreme edge-enhancement has been applied making scenes look like there is heavy ghosting (see screenshot below), and there is aggressive noise reduction filtering with mosquito noise grain jumping around throughout. In one scene, it looks like the software is trying to erase a long crack or perhaps a piece of string hanging down a wall thinking it is a tramline scratch. Some marks and damage remain, but they are mostly of a minor nature with only an occasional instance of larger flaws and the occasional splice mark. Exteriors in bright light fare reasonably well, with a golden sunlit glow, but greens look yellowish and cross-colouration issues are evident. Overall, the image is really just about acceptable.
The audio track is a standard Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo mix which is relatively clear for dialogue, sound effects and the plaintive music score. A little bit of analogue background noise can be heard but it’s scarcely intrusive.
English subtitles are provided and are optional in a clear white font. They are generally fine, displaying only a few minor errors in spelling and grammar. Swedish and Dutch subtitles are also available.
The only extra features on the DVD are trailers for other Escapi Chinese cinema titles, Life Show and Postmen in the Mountains.
It’s hard to be entirely mean about what is a nice film with a positive outlook on human nature, but the emotions and situations in Warm Spring feel fake and over-sentimentalised, trying to hard to win the viewer over with a heart-tugging score and everyone constantly sobbing throughout. If you are inclined to be tolerant however, it’s a sweet film that is well made, with some good performances, notably from the young Zhang Yan as Xiao Hua, and lovely cinematography that captures the light and beauty of the landscapes. Escapi’s DVD release doesn’t really do much for the film though, presenting a rough non-anamorphic print, DNR’d to within an inch of its life that is really not much more than acceptable.