A SPRING RIVER FLOWS EAST: COMMUNITIES
AND IDENTITIES IN FLUX
The third and most powerful narrative, a two-part film entitled A Spring River Flows East, features many of the same lead actors and actresses, but this account of the holocaust experience heads in a number of new directions. The first part, "Eight Years of Separation and Chaos" (Ba nian li luan), begins not in 1937, but on National Day, October 10, 1931, in the immediate aftermath of the Japanese occupation of Manchuria. As in Far Away Love, a serious effort is made to locate warrelated issues in the broader context of prewar conditions. In this story the protagonist is a young man named Zhang Zhongliang, who works as a night-school teacher in a class attended by female textile workers in Shanghai.
Zhang, an ardent patriot who advocates immediate resistance to Japanese aggression, has organized a gala National Day talent show in a factory union hall. At the end of the show he is urged by young workers to make some patriotic remarks. His passionate anti-Japanese speech elicits two different responses. The majority applauds wildly and throws money on the stage; one female worker, Sufen, idolizes the dashing and heroic teacher. But a small minority seated at the front, consisting
After this opening tone is set, the narrative turns to the romantic relationship between Zhang Zhongliang and Sufen. Showing the utmost respect for the family matriarch, Zhang invites Sufen to come home for dinner one night to meet his mother. Naturally, the mother takes an immediate liking to the shy and highly "traditionalistic" young woman (played by Bai Yang). Zhang proposes marriage to Sufen later that night and, as he presents her with a ring, is heard promising that the couple will "be together forever" (yongyuan zai yiqi). The couple get married and before long a son is born.
Unfortunately for them, full-scale war breaks out in mid-1937, and Japanese forces are fast approaching Shanghai. Their dreams of family unity are smashed. Determined to join a Red Cross unit, Zhang tells his mother and wife that they should stay behind in Shanghai, but that if the situation becomes intolerable, they should flee to their native village in the countryside, where Zhang's father and younger brother, Zhongmin, are living. "I'm leaving you only because of the resistance war," Zhang tells Sufen.
Zhang's Red Cross group gets caught in the middle of the bloody struggle for Shanghai and then retreats west when the city is lost. His family flees to the countryside and links up with Zhongmin and his fiancée, who belong to a guerrilla unit based in the hills. Zhongmin, played by Gao Zheng (the evil cousin in Eight Thousand Miles of Clouds and Moon!), is a paragon of Confucian virtue. When the Japanese close in on the village, Zhongmin respectfully asks his father's permission before escaping with his fiancée to the guerrilla base.
In 1938–39 Zhongliang travels with Nationalist units to Hankou and then Nanchang, all the while doing exhausting and dangerous Red Cross work. But life is much worse for his family under the Japanese occupation. Japanese forces confiscate grain, property, and livestock and require the people to do backbreaking forced labor. When a merciless new grain tax is announced, villagers plead with Zhongliang's father, the village school principal, to appeal to the enemy. Instead of reconsidering, the Japanese execute the old man. The local guerrilla unit gets revenge by wiping out the Japanese post in the village, but Sufen, her son, and mother-in-law decide to return to Shanghai to wait out the war.
Meanwhile, Zhang Zhongliang has been captured by the Japanese in the interior and forced to do slave labor. He escapes, however, and, dressed in rags and penniless, arrives in Chongqing in 1941. He tries to find resistance-related work, but fails. He is also frustrated in an attempt to secure factory work in one of the war industries. In a deep depression, he looks up an acquaintance from Shanghai by the name of Wang Lizhen, played by the famous actress Shu Xiuwen (1915–69), who made resistance movies in Chongqing during the war. Wang offers
Zhang is shocked to discover, however, that Pang's company is not helping the resistance at all. Pang is a war profiteer. His employees hang around all day, while his lieutenants enjoy a carefree life of dancing, partying, eating, drinking, and romancing. Zhang complains to Wang Lizhen that "there's not an iota of resistance spirit at the company." Wang laughs hysterically and tells him he needs to relax and adjust to life in Chongqing. His spirit weakened, Zhang finally gives in to temptation. Not only does he accept her advice, he also succumbs to her seductions. After several rounds of heavy drinking, Zhang ends up in Wang's bed. Wang is unaware that Zhang is married.
At the end of part one the story returns briefly to Shanghai, where Sufen and Zhang's son and mother are struggling to survive under a cruel occupation. Even though they live in a simple shack and have barely enough to eat, Sufen and her mother-in-law help out at a school that tends to war orphans. One night, at a moment when Zhang is in bed with Wang in Chongqing, Sufen wonders why the family has not heard anything from him for years.
Unlike the first part of this epic narrative, which covers the period from 1931 to 1944, the second part, entitled "Before and after Dawn" (Tian liang qian hou), takes place almost entirely in the summer and autumn months of 1945. The beginning of this segment is dominated by the story of Zhang Zhongliang's meteoric rise in the ranks of Pang Haogong's elaborate business organization. Before long he becomes Pang's chief aide, fully complicitous in a web of corrupt wartime profiteering and influence peddling. While Zhang and his new friends and cohorts feast on lobsters and crabs flown into Chongqing from occupied Shanghai, Zhang's mother, wife, and son are barely managing to make ends meet under the Japanese occupation. To make matters worse, toward the end of the war Zhang decides to marry Wang Lizhen at a lavish wedding ceremony in Chongqing. During the wedding feast a letter addressed to Zhang arrives from his wife. Fearful that his prewar past will be revealed, he destroys the letter.
In his capacity as Pang's most trusted assistant, Zhang is among the first to fly back to Shanghai when the war ends. Pang has used his influence to get Zhang designated as a "takeover official" (jieshou dayuan). Their goal is to get off to a fast start in exploiting postwar economic opportunities. In liberated Shanghai, arrangements have been made for Zhang to live in the home of Wang Lizhen's cousin (biaojie) He Wenyan, played by the well-known actress Shangguan Yunzhu (1920–68). At first, He Wenyan courts Zhang's favor because she wants him to help get her husband, who has been arrested for collaborating with the Japanese, released from jail. Later she discovers that her husband has been seeing other women, so she allows him to languish in prison while she focuses on yet another seduction of Zhang, the rich newcomer from Chongqing. Zhang instantly agrees to the new arrangement but asks Wenyan what they will do when Lizhen arrives
Zhang's first wife, Sufen, and his mother and son are worried sick because they have heard nothing from him in the first few weeks of the postwar period. Although the war is over, the family's economic situation steadily worsens. Desperate for work, Sufen looks for a job as a domestic servant. As fate would have it, she gains employment as a day worker in the large house run by He Wenyan. Indeed, her husband is in bed with Wenyan on the morning Sufen arrives to be interviewed for the job. The lipstick-stained bed clothes she will have to hand wash belong to her own husband, who once promised her that they would be together for eternity.
Soon thereafter Wang Lizhen arrives from Chongqing and takes up residence with Zhang at Wenyan's house. Now, for the first time, all three of Zhang's women are under the same roof. Wenyan knows about Lizhen, but not about Sufen. Lizhen knows nothing of Zhang's connections to Sufen or Wenyan. Sufen knows nothing about her husband's presence in the house. Zhang, of course, is unaware of Sufen's work in the servants' quarters.
A major crisis explodes at a sumptuous National Day banquet held at the house on October 10, 1945. The guest of honor is Pang Haogong. Just as Pang is about to force Zhang and Lizhen to do a tango for everyone, Sufen, who is serving drinks to the guests, spots Zhang. A major scandal then erupts in front of all the guests. Sufen collapses on the dance floor, Lizhen screams hysterically, and Wenyan cracks a wicked smile when it becomes clear that Zhang is indeed married to the servant. Lizhen runs upstairs, threatening suicide if Zhang does not divorce Sufen. Zhang promises her he will get a divorce. Sufen runs home to break the bad news to her son and mother-in-law. The mother is numbed by Sufen's disclosures. By coincidence, the old lady has just received a letter from her younger son, Zhongmin, the upright guerrilla fighter who sacrificed for the nation throughout the war. He has written to announce his marriage to his prewar sweetheart, who worked alongside him throughout the difficult years of national struggle. Zhang's mother pulls her grandson over and tearfully tells him to learn from the example of his uncle Zhongmin rather than his father. (See figure 11.3.)
In a highly emotional final sequence, the old lady takes Sufen and the young boy to a confrontational meeting with Zhongliang, who is now caught in the middle; his mother, wife, and son are downstairs, while his second wife and mistress are upstairs. At this point the narrative centers on the issue of Zhang's choice. Will he go back to his old life or continue to embrace his new life?
Disgraced by her husband's conduct, Sufen commits suicide by jumping into a nearby river. The old lady and the young boy rush to the waterfront, but it is too late. A distraught Zhongliang arrives on the scene, but seems incapable of assuming responsibility for his grieving family members. Before long, Lizhen and Wenyan arrive in a fancy American automobile to urge Zhongliang to leave with them. Viewers are not allowed to learn what Zhongliang decides to do. As the
Figure 11.3. Postwar dreams are shattered when Zhang Zhongliang's "wartime" wife (right) contemplates suicide after discovering that he has a "prewar" family, in A Spring River Flows East (d. Cai Chusheng and Zheng Junli, Kunlun Film Studio, 1947). Courtesy of the Film Archive of China, Beijing.