Home > Greatest Scores of the Twentieth Century, Reviews > THE SPRING RIVER FLOWS EAST – Zhang Zengfan


October 10, 2022 Leave a comment Go to comments


Original Review by Craig Lysy

The film The Spring River Flows East – Yī Jiāng Chūn Shuǐ Xiàng Dōng Liú in its native language – was conceived by the director and screenplay writing team of Zheng Junli and Cai Chusheng. Its title derives from a famous line among ancient Chinese poems that uses water as a metaphor for sorrow. In the film’s story it is used to express boundless, unending sorrow, as endless as the ever-flowing river water in spring. The film was a passion project and Zheng and Cai secured financial backing from the Kunlun Film Company, which oversaw production. Zheng and Cai wrote the screenplay, would co-direct, and assembled a stellar cast, including the leading actors of the time: Bai Yang who would play Sufen, and Tao Jin who would play Zhang Zhongliang. Joining them would be Shi Xiuwen as Wang Lizhen, Shangguan Yunzhu as He Wenyuan, Yan Gongshang as Zhang Zhongliang’s father, Gao Zheng as Zhang Zhongmin and Zhou Boxum as Pang Haogong.

The story is epic and the 3 hours plus film offers two acts inspired by the famous poem “The Beautiful Lady Yu” by Li Yu. Defining is this phrase “May I ask how much sorrow you can carry? It feels like the Yangtze River flowing east endlessly downstream in the spring!” This statement is thematic and its words are often reprised during the film. Act I is titled “Eight Years of Separation and Chaos” and is set in Shanghai China in 1931 during the onset of the Japanese invasion. It follows the romance and marriage of Zhang Zhongliang a teacher, and Sufen, a young girl who works in a textile factory. They have a son Kangsheng yet the family becomes separated by the war with him going to the front lines as a Red Cross worker and she, their son and his mother to the countryside for safety. As Sufen selflessly and dutifully struggles to keep the family safe and fed, Zhongliang is captured and ordered to do forced labor. He eventually escapes, becomes destitute, a drunkard and succumbs to the seduction of Lizhen. While Sufen prays for his return, Zhongliang no longer thinks of her or his family.

In Act II, “Before and After Dawn” Zhongliang has married Lizhen and begun a new life of a pretentious wealthy man, which has transformed him completely. By chance Sufen takes up maid duties at the Lizhen estate and faints during a dinner party when she sees Zhongliang with Lizhen. She declares she is his wife for ten years and have a son, which causes an uproar. At Lizhen’s demand Zhongliang divorces Sufen, which breaks her heart and leads to her suicide. The film ends with Kangsheng and his grandmother mourning Sufen’s death as Zhongliang arrives. His mother berates him for not being a good and filial man as she cries to the heavens to end her endless life of suffering. The film was a massive commercial and critical success, greatly loved by the public and critics alike. The film is now legend, considered to be China’s “Gone With the Wind” and the greatest Chinese film ever made.

Composer Zhang Zengfan had only scored one prior film, Ye Ban Ge Sheng Xu Ji in 1941, but it made a lasting impression on both Zheng and Cai who offered him the scoring assignment, which he gladly accepted. Upon viewing the epic film, he realized that he was presented with a massive canvass on which to compose. He also was mindful of the recurring poem phrase “May I ask how much sorrow you can carry? It feels like the Yangtze River flowing east endlessly downstream in the spring!” It was clear that this was a tale of great sorrow about a selfless, filial woman who nurtured and protected her family, and her husband, a good and decent man who succumbed to wealth and moral dissolution, coldly abandoning his filial duties (unforgiveable in Chinese culture) for a life of wealth and privilege.

Zhang’s approach was not to employ leitmotifs, which was characteristic of the Hollywood composers of the day, instead opting to fashion his soundscape, in a manner similar to those used by cinematographers and lighting technicians, establishing mood, and ambiance. As such the score is built as a series of set pieces, specifically attenuated the interpersonal emotional dynamics unfolding on the screen; sorrow, anger, love and betrayal. Zhang also spotted his music with restraint, with much of the more intense Part 2 with minimal music, instead relying on the intense and riveting dialogue to carry the scenes.

00:00 “Main Titles” supports the roll of the opening credits, which display as white script set against a series of pastoral and river scenes below a cloud filled sky. Zhang presents his plaintive Main Theme, which sets the tone of the film. At 00:25 a stirring ascent by yearning strings appassionato ascend ever upwards towards the heavens. At 01:14 the music become grim and war like as the cast credits display. At 1:39 the aching Main Theme reprises to support the conclusion of the opening credits. At 02:15 “Prologue” we enter the film proper, which displays the film’s core narrative; “How much sorrow can one person bear? As much as a spring river flowing east!” Zhang supports the scene with the Sorrow Theme sung powerfully by women’s choir.

02:44 “Shanghai After the Mukden Incident of 1931” reveals the city of Shanghai following the Japanese false flag incident used as a pretext for an invasion of Manchuria. Dire, descending four-note phrases full of despair support. We flow into a textile factory atop a danza felice as we see happy workers overseeing the spinning machines. The dance supports the end of day whistle and workers departing. 03:53 “Shunhe Silk Factory Women’s Academy” reveals a smiling Sufen sitting in a classroom as her handsome professor, and future husband Zhongliang discusses the invasion of Manchuria with a chalk map. Zhang supports with an extended danza gentile as we see Sufen dutifully watching. 05:05 “Tango” reveals a celebration of “Happy National Day”, which features a classic tango danced solo by Wang Lizhen, with Zhongliang and Sufen looking on. Afterwards Zhongliang exhorts the crowd to embrace Chinese pride, donate money, and resist the Japanese invasion of Manchuria.

13:09 “Zhongliang and Sufen” offers a romantic score highlight. It reveals Zhongliang’s mother sensing that the couple needed intimate time together and so she says she is going to her room to lay down. As they go to a balcony and gaze at the full moon, Zhang supports with a romance for strings with woodwind adornment. The music blossoms as he tells her that he is the nearby star and she the moon, which has captured his heart. He then places a wedding ring on her finger and commits to spending their lives together full of contentment and happiness. The next day we flow into a springtime musical narrative of happiness as we see them begin their married life together. He returns home to work, finds her hiding something, which turns out to be handmade baby clothes. He is joyous that they will be parents. 17:52 “It’s a Boy!” reveals that Sufen has given birth to a boy, which brings much joy to Zhongliang and his mother. Strings sentimentali led by a solo violin tenero offer a heartfelt and thankful passage.

18:52 “War! Part 1” offers script that shows the July 7th incident at the Marco Polo bridge, which begins the war of resistance against the Japanese. A montage reveals images of fighting, Chinese resistance, and people fleeing for their lives, empowered by strident bugles militare and horns bellicoso, which propel a musical narrative filled with violence. Later in an unscored scene Zhongliang and Sufen work at the Shanghai Food and Relief Center. Zhongliang decides that since their son was born on July 7th, the day the war of resistance began, that they should name him Kangsheng – “Born of the Resistance”. 22:46 “War! Part 2” reveals streets clogged with desperate people fleeing Shanghai for the interior as the Japanese have broken through. Zhang supports musically with a dramatic and frantic narrative as Sufen and her mother-in-law look down in disbelief. Zhongliang arrives home with bad news that his unit has been ordered south. He counsels Sufen to remain in Shanghai and only go to his ancestral village if life becomes too hard.

24:33 “A Mother’s Sadness” offers an emotional score highlight. It reveals Zhongliang’s mother sowing as she is unable to sleep. Zhongliang joins her and she relates she is sewing him a jacket so he will not be cold. He hugs her and Zhang supports the intimate mother-son moment with warm, familial strings tenero. The musical narrative is sustained as he joins Sufen and his son. He frets about leaving them and Sufen begins to weep. Strings gain emotive power as Sufen promises to hold the family together until he returns victorious. He promises to return so they may live in a great nation second to none. Later that night as they lay in bed they gaze once again at a brilliant full moon and he promises to think of her every day and return.

28:52 “War! Part 3” offers a score highlight with one of its most ferocious action cues. A montage unfolds with the brutal Japanese attack on the city by ground and air as Zhongliang departs. A horrific and dire musical narrative of violence supports the destruction and throngs of desperate people fleeing for their lives. At 29:31 a confident marcia patriottica supports Chinese Nationalist troops marching to defend Nanking. Zhang unleashes another musical narrative of violence to support a new battle montage, which unfolds as the Japanese launch a brutal attack on the ancient Ming capital. A maelstrom of swirling strings and horns of doom engulf the screen as Zhongliang Red Cross unit looks on in horror. The Japanese mow down his medic unit and Zhongliang rubs blood on his face and feigns death as the Japanese soldiers advance over them. Zhongliang then flees to safety in the opposite direction. We close with script saying “1938” as Chinese troops march forward to meet the Japanese supported by a marcia patriottica.

Sufen, Kangsheng and mother-in-law have escaped to Zhongliang’s village and join his father and younger brother Zhongmin. At 33:09 eerie strings buttress onscreen winter winds as the family huddles in the house. Later Zhongmin and his student friends decide to flee the city and join the resistance as Japanese are killing all educated people. They barely escape as the Japanese come to arrest them. 38:55 “Hankow Red Cross Hospital” reveals Zhongliang helping to evacuate as the Japanese advance on the city. An aggrieved variant of the marcia patriottica supports his efforts. At 40:11 desperate, surging strings support thousands waiting at the train station in hopes to escape the advancing Japanese. The music descends into sadness as we see Zhongliang assisting the sick and wounded to the train platform. This narrative is sustained as we shift back to Zhongliang’s village and we see the Japanese confiscating all the village’s livestock so they may eat, but by doing so it means people will now have to pull the ploughs themselves in the spring. At 42:09 aching celli affanato support father’s grief as they take his beloved steer.

42:55 “Bad Times” reveals an overloaded train bypassing the station supported by a crescendo dramatico as desperate people pour onto the track and chase after the train. In the fields, beleaguered strings support the toil of farmers pulling their own ploughs to furrow their fields. At home father is ill and unable to obey a Japanese soldier’s command to work in the fields. The soldier departs warning, no work, no food and you die. He summons his strength and takes to the fields where he, and the women pull the heavy plough supported by heavy suffering strings of torment and woe. 45:41 “Zhongliang’s Deprivation and Escape” reveals him and others carrying heavy boxed supplies for the Japanese. He is beaten and in desperation the men break ranks to quench their thirst in a dirty roadside gully. A brutal musical narrative of despair and pain unfolds as they are brutally beaten and forced to resume their trek. That night as he looks up at the moon, wistful strings remind him of his beloved Sufen. Yet he is bound and the strings descend into despair as his body slumps, his spirit nearly broken. In his mind he sees his family fleeing amidst burning fields and the music surges with dire violence. He starts sawing his restraining rope on a sharp boulder supported by harsh sawing strings until 49:04 when a string surge of relief signal his release. He escapes yet a guard discovers his severed rope and commences a search supported by horns of alarm, yet Zhongliang escapes in the water, hiding among the reeds.

A Japanese proclamation requires 60 kg of rice per 1/6th acre, which leaves insufficient rice for the people to survive the winter. The people beg father to appeal on their behalf, and he agrees, knowing it will most likely mean his death. 52:15 “Father Sentenced to Death” offers an anguished score highlight. It reveals the Japanese commander ordering father’s death for defying an order from the Imperial army. Dire horns resound with disbelief and initiate a horrific passage when soldiers drag him out to be hanged as his wife pleads on her knees. A crescendo of horror surges as the noose is placed around his neck, joined by pleading strings as the people cry out for mercy. Horns full of anguish attend a grim bass descent of death with counters by writhing violins to support his hanging. People who cry, or linger are shot mercilessly as gunfire disperses the mourners. 54:47 “Sufen Writes Zhongliang” reveals Sufen writing Zhongliang a letter advising him of the murder of his father by the Japanese. Grieving strings affanato offer a heart wrenching pathos.

55:47 “The Resistance Fights Back” offer eerie tremolo strings to support a Japanese sentry standing guard as Chinese resistance fighters sneak up from behind. Zhang sows unease with quivering woodwind and harsh pizzicato string counters to support their stealth approach. At 56:24 a tension crescendo commences and crests violently as the men knife him to death. Another violent crescendo at 56:40 supports the killing of another Japanese guard in town. At 56:45 dire strings usher in a musical narrative of patriotic fervor as the resistance brigade assembles in the hills and then moves into town swelling into a maelstrom of violence as bombs destroy Japanese headquarters and kills the commander who executed father. 57:47 “Zhongmin’s Grief” reveals he and his men retrieving his father’s hung body. A grieving, abyssal descent of heartache by bass affanato support Zhongmin’s sorrow as he hugs his father’s corpse. Zhang sows tension back at the house when Zhongmin and his men awaken his family. He informs them that he will bury father in the mountains, and that the family must return to Shanghai as the Japanese will take revenge on the village.

1:00:39 “Evacuation” reveals the Zhang family departing as villagers join the professor and resistance fighter in the local mountains. Dire horns propel a dramatic musical narrative to support the evacuation. At the river Zhongmin inquiries about his brother, promising to not let him down. Sufen says he is in Chungking and they say their goodbyes as a boat takes them down river to Shanghai. Strings doloroso support the bittersweet departure as the family wonders if they will ever see Zhongmin again. 1:01:30 “1941 Chungking” reveals a bustling city under Chinese control. Zhang supports with a vibrant musical narrative. Zhongliang is seeking work, but his application for employment is rebuffed despite his literacy and education, due to his tattered clothes. A montage supported by aggrieved strings reveals one failed attempt after another to get a job. The music saddens and is tinged with despair as we see Zhongliang losing hope and becoming destitute. He comes across an article about his friend, the entertainer Wang Lizhen who career is blossoming and decides to reluctantly seek her out, carried by beleaguered strings, full of uncertainty. He knocks at her door, is granted admission, and told to wait for Lizhen.

Lizhen greets him warmly and asks what has happened. He relates that his life is destroyed, that he is a homeless bum unable to find work, his father was murdered by the Japanese, his brother is a resistance fighter, and that he no longer knows where his family is. Lizhen takes pity on him and orders her servant to prepare the guest room as Zhongliang will be staying. 1:07:06 “Saved” reveals Lizhen ordering fresh clothes and a musical narrative of happiness unfolds as Zhongliang counts his blessings. As he sits down to wait, the music becomes mischievous with woodwinds comici after he finds a torn-up picture in a trash basket of Lizhen and her boyfriend. He smiles, and we see the wheels of possibilities turning in his mind. Strings felice flutter as we see Zhongliang in new clothes getting a haircut. At home, Lizhen calls her dad Mr. Pang, owner of the Prosperity Trading Company, and convinces him to hire Zhongliang.

1:10:34 “A New Beginning” offers strings gentile full of hope, which support the dawn of a new day with Zhongliang waking up, washing, and preparing for his first day on the job. The happy musical narrative carries his walk to work. A diminuendo of confusion supports his entry into the office where he finds several men sleeping on the furniture. He sits at a desk, writes down his arrival time of 07:50. Many workers come in hours later and yet falsify their arrival time, each writing 08:00. As he struggles to figure out the work environment, source music plays on the radio. As he explores the building, he finds gambling in the back room. Later at a night club he is told to drink alcohol at dinner and then dances with coworkers, supported by source dance music. He returns home dispirited and unhappy with his day, which Zhang reflects musically. He sits down, turns on the radio and a woman sings a festive song, which he turns off. The sad music returns and intensifies as he opens a window, takes in the night breeze, and becomes pensive as his thoughts turn to his family.

In two unscored scenes, Lizhen returns home, and asks for his opinion regarding the company. He hesitates and says there is no spirit of the resistance, to which she states dismissively, that he will just have to adjust to. She sees that he is depressed, slips him a large bill fold, and tells him to forget what ails him and cheer up by going to the theater. In Shanghai, Sufen and mother perform daily chores in their rooftop hovel as mother complains of the high cost of living. She is also depressed that Zhongliang is in Chungking, over a thousand miles away from his family. At work the next day Zhongliang comes in late at 10:30 and writes 08:00 like everyone else. 1:23:08 “Bored” reveals Zhongliang bored and doodling at his desk, like his coworkers, which Zhang supports with weighted and uninspired meandering strings. He crumbles up his paper and offers to take his coworker Mr. Gong out for drinks and dinner, which he accepts. Zhongliang gets drunk, becoming first angry, and then bitter for having lost his family and a meaningful life, sobbing that he has become the walking dead. He stands up, saying he is still young, and will start a new life!

In an unscored scene we see Sufen working dutifully, and compassionately 12-hour days in a refugee relief center feeding, bathing and caring for children without families. 1:30:46 “Love Stirs” reveals Zhongliang with a mind’s image of Lizhen displayed. Subtle strings romantico inform us of his desire, more so after she arrives home and his eyes focus on her legs as she ascends the stairs. In an unscored scene, back in Shanghai, mother remains ill and says to Sufen they would be better off if she was dead. She frets that Zhongliang has not written for many months, not knowing that Sufen cannot afford the postage to write him. 1:33:55 “Betrayal” reveals Lizhen joining Zhongliang on the terrace and inviting him upstairs to her bedroom, to which he agrees. Zhang supports subtly with strings romantico, which blossom at 1:34:20 when he opens the window and sees the light of the full moon shimmering on the river below. She says he should think of this as his new home, and she offers him a drink. She joins him, and then he takes her to bed.

Back in Shanghai we see Sufen gazing up at the full moon supported by strings romantica so full of longing, and we flash back to Zhongliang’s comparing her to the full moon, and that she will be in his heart every day. We return to the present and at 1:36:14 the music darkens, becoming ominous as black storm clouds obscure the moon and bring a monsoonal down pour. The roof starts leaking and Sufen cover Kang’er to keep him dry. A musical narrative of woe unfolds as winds rip out the windows letting rain pour in as the entire roof begins leaking, forcing everyone to take shelter under a tarp while a sobbing mother prays for dawn, and Zhongliang’s return. Zhang whips his orchestra into a torrent as Sufen retrieves the window outside and tries to reset it. We conclude Part 1 the next day as a woman’s choir, so full of sadness, sings “How much sorrow can one person bear? As much as a spring river flowing east!”, ending in a choral flourish.

00:00 “Main Titles” supports the opening credits of Part 2, which display as white script set against a series of pastoral and river scenes below a cloud filled sky. Zhang reprises his plaintive Main Theme, from Part 1. 00:16 “Chungking” opens with idyllic woodwinds as moon’s light glistens on the Yangtze River. Strings tenero weave a soft morning ambiance as we see Zhongliang lying in bed with Lizhen. He is troubled and we begin a montage of flash backs atop strings romantico to that special moonlit night when he held Sufen in his arms and confessed his undying love. The ambiance is shattered by horns dramatico at 01:10 as we shift to the war, and his departure to the front. The music softens as we see flashbacks to his life with Lizhen, until we return to the present with her sleeping in his arms. In an unscored scene, Lizhen introduces Zhongliang to her father who announces that he is his new son-in-law who will work as his personal secretary.

06:47 “Zhongliang Learns the Business” reveals a montage of Zhongliang learning the operations of Mr. Pang’s vast company. Zhang supports by channeling Joseph Haydn with a chamber music passage. 07:33 “Zhongliang’s New Life” offers source music as we see Zhongliang and Lizhen dancing at a party. The next day elegant strings felice support scenes of Zhongliang’s new opulent life style as we see him transformed by western suits into an executive who smokes cigars. 09:44 “Shanghai #5 Refugee Center” reveals Sufen toiling washing clothes by hand with a children’s choir singing an inspiration song about the beauty of music in the background. Later Japanese troops arrive and order all the homeless refugees to leave as army command is commandeering the building. 13:45 “Prisoners” Sufen, mother and Kang-er are rounded up with the other refugees, and beaten as the soldiers steal their rice. Zhang supports with a musical narrative of woe as Sufen’s life spirals towards disaster.

In an unscored scene Zhongliang and Lizhen have married and throw a lavish party at their new mansion. 14:51 “Escape” opens with plodding woodwinds as a man tries to escape, is shot, and his death marked by blaring horns of doom. Strings irato usher in a crescendo of menace propelled by horns bellicoso as the guard orders everyone into a water filled ditch, with Kang’er crying as Sufen carries him. Back at the party in an unscored scene, Gong brings Zhongliang a letter from Sufen, Kang’er and his mother, that were mailed three years ago on October 5, 1942. They are awaiting his return home and Zhongliang orders Gong to remain silent about his wife and family as Lizhen is very jealous. Lizhen sees the letter, demands to read it, but Zhongliang tears it up and tosses it in the river, saying it was from villagers begging for money. 17:52 “Tango” reveals the newlyweds dancing a tango, demanded by the guests, which Zhang supports with classic Argentinian flare. 18:23 “We Are less Than Animals” reveals an old woman giving up and deciding to escape as she cannot take living anymore. Zhang supports with a Pathetique, which evolves into a crescendo of desperation replete with portentous horns of doom as the old woman makes her escape, cresting on horns of death as she is shot and killed.

19:54 “Japan Surrenders” reveals cheering crowds as script displays Japan’s Surrender. Zhang supports with a celebratory paean of joy. 20:11 “Celebration” reveals Zhongliang and Lizhen being entertained by manager Cui dancing on the dining table supported by bubbling woodwinds of delight. The next three scenes are unscored. Mr. Pang decides to return to Shanghai with Zhongliang to secure docks and expanded business opportunities as trade is set to reopen. Lizhen pouts as she is told she will have to come later, but Zhongliang placates her and leaves on good terms. Sufen brings home news to mother and Kang’er that the Japanese have surrendered. They are ecstatic to have survived the war and hope for Zhongliang’s imminent return. At the business office of manager Wen, the staff are burning all their records of collaboration with the Japanese. He receives news that his boss Mr. Pang, and Zhongliang are returning to Shanghai and hopes they will save him, yet authorities arrive and arrest him as a collaborator.

28:11 “Mr. Pang and Zhongliang Return” reveals their arrival in Shanghai where they are greeted by Lizhen’s cousin Mrs. He Wenyuan and employees of the company. Zhang supports with strings and woodwinds gentile, which create a warm and welcoming ambiance. Spritely strings carry their drive into the city and we flow seamlessly into a welcoming party where Zhongliang dances with Wenyuan to source music and returns to her house drunk. A solo violin d’Amore supports as Zhongliang and Wenyuan banter. 30:20 “Sufen Longs for Zhongliang” reveals her in bed with Kang’er looking out the window of the full moon, her thoughts of her husband. Strings full of yearning with woodwind adornment support as she smiles and cradles Kang’er. We flash back to their special night when he confessed his undying love borne by a romance for strings with flute adornment, but the memory is fleeting, and she returns to the present with tears in her eyes. Strings doloroso so full of longing and flute delicato support as she drifts off to sleep.

31:34 “New Car” offers strings maestoso and woodwinds emoting an elegant ambiance as Mr. Pang and Zhongliang board his new limousine. In two unscored scenes we discover that Zhongliang and Wenyuan are having an affair, with she declaring that when Lizhen comes to Shanghai, she is content to be his ‘secret wife’. Later, Sufen and mother fret that they cannot afford to mail a letter to Zhongliang as the cost of a stamp has risen 900%. It gets worse, as the landlord threatens to evict them as they have not paid rent for two months. Later that night Sufen spoons broth, their dinner, into only two bowls, foregoing her supper. She then informs mother that she will go work as a servant, a humiliation for the family, but now their only choice if they are to avoid becoming homeless. 39:03 “Sufen is Hired” reveals her being hired to work at the home of a wealthy merchant. Her entry is supported by tentative woodwinds as she is introduced to the Wenyuan, mistress of the house as Zhongliang sleeps behind the door in her bedroom. She is assigned washing clothes and we see her struggle, as she has lost weight and become weak foregoing food for mother and Kang’er.

“Lizhen Arrives” Zhongliang and Wenyuan greet Lizhen at the airport and do a good job hiding their relationship. Music enters at 43:30 as a narrative of happiness to support their drive home. At an intersection Kang’er, who is a paper boy tries to sell a paper to Zhongliang, but they drive off and ends up being run over by a bicycle, which gravely injures his leg. Woodwinds doloroso support his pain as he hobbles off. In unscored scenes, at Wenyuan’s home Lizhen discovers to her horror silhouettes of Zhongliang and Wenyuan kissing behind a glazed door and begins to weep. Later that night Zhongliang shows Lizhen the eight dresses he bought her, and she plays along. She asks him to sit on the bed with her, and she asks if he has “fooled around” in her absence? He assures her he has not and she chooses not to confront him at this time. In an unscored scene Kang’er shows up and Sufen bandages his leg. They both cry and say things will get better when daddy returns.

50:42 “National Day Party” reveals Mr. Pang arriving for the party, greeted by Lizhen, Zhongliang and Wenyuan. Zhang supports with festive carnivalesque music. In the kitchen the cook grants Sufen’s request for leftover rice and pork bones and she wraps it, and goes to the back entrance to give it to Kang’er. Zhang supports with a very sad song played on an erhu by a minstrel, with the lyrics sung by his son; “The moon slants down on provinces nine, Oh! How many families celebrate while others pine? Some in mansions drink fine wine, Oh! Others on the streets in wretched decline”.

Kang’er takes the pork bones and rice home to granny so she can make soup. As granny sits alone on the balcony, the song reprises, and ends when Kang’er returns home with the food. 59:11 “Sufen Discovers Zhongliang” reveals Lizhen and Zhongliang dancing to spirited source music. The manager Cui demands Zhongliang and Lizhen grace them with a tango. The following dramatic scene is unscored. Sufen enters with a platter of drinks, and hears them demand that Zhang Zhongliang and Lizhen dance the tango. She looks around the room, their eyes lock, and Sufen drops the platter in shock. Lizhen, Wenyuan and finally Mr. Pang confront her and she reveals she has been married to Zhongliang for ten years and that they have a nine-year-old son. Lizhen flees screaming in distress. Zhongliang asks her what she wants him to do, adding I thought you were dead. Sufen replies, “I wish I was dead”. She flees the house and Zhongliang starts to pursue, yet turns back when he is advised that Lizhen has fainted. She wakes, and demands that her father exact revenge and kill Zhongliang.

1:09:46 “Sufen’s Devastation” reveals her at home as Zhongliang’s words reprise; “Sufen, all I want is for us to always be together, experiencing all of life’s joys and sorrows. To be content and happy for every generation to come”. Zhang supports softly with strings affanato so full of sorrow. Zhongliang begs Lizhen to forgive him, gives her the key to his safe, and agrees to her demands that he divorce ‘the bitch’. 1:11:12 “Aftermath” reveals sunrise over the Yangtze River, which Zhang supports with a crescendo dramatico. Kang’er receives a letter from Uncle Zhongmin and his wife Wanhua with a photo of them and is very happy. Sufen overhears and is unsure how to break the bad news. She breaks down and sobs as she tells of his devastating betrayal. Mother cannot believe it and demands to be taken to him at once.

“The Confrontation and Sufen’s Suicide” has the film’s most riveting dialogue and Zhang lets the actors carry the scene without music. Mother confronts her son and shames him for betraying Sufen, her, and his son. Lizhen joins ferociously, full of rage, threatening to kill herself if he waivers in divorcing Sufen. Zhongliang is seen as a truly pathetic and unsympathetic figure, choosing Lizhen and a life of wealth and privilege. Sufen flees, unable to bear the pain, with Kang’er running after her. She runs to the docks and tells Kang’er to obey granny and not be like your father. She sends him to by some food as she is hungry. He buys some flatbread, returns, only to discover that she has drowned after jumping into the river. He takes to granny her suicide note, which Wenyuan’s butler reads. She says her goodbyes and hopes Kang’er will grow up like his uncle. He takes granny to the dock, where she sobs as a man states; “Goddamn it! These days the good die, and the evil thrive!” Zhongliang arrives by car with Lizhen and Wenyuan. At the dock his mother rebukes him as an unfilial son that betrayed her, his family, and drove Sufen to her death. Lizhen has Wenyuan keep blowing the horn to get Zhongliang back and the film ends with a terrible pathos, born of a choral rendered Main Theme as script displays; “How much sorrow can one person bear? As much as a spring river flowing east!”

“Spring River Runs East” is universally afforded the accolade of the greatest Chinese film ever made. The archival, monaural audio was at time painful to experience and at time challenged my skill as a reviewer. Composer Zhang Zengfan eschewed the western leitmotif approach used by Hollywood composers of the time, and instead created a soundscape, which draped the film is aural auras. Characters were not provided thematic identities, with music used instead to express the interpersonal and setting emotional dynamics of the scene. He masterfully evoked the horrors and brutality of war, the rapture and longing of romantic love, the despair of deprivation, and the unbearable bitterness of betrayal. The conception, spotting and execution of Zhang’s score was excellent, finding confluence with the powerful emotional drama unfolding on the screen. I believe Zhang’s handiwork to be a masterwork of post WWII Chinese cinema. Like most Chinese scores of this era, a rerecording is required so this momentous work can be shared with new generations of film score fans. Until that time, we must be content hearing it as we watch the film.

For those of you unfamiliar with the score, I regret there was no YouTube link available to hear the music outside of the film.

Track Listing:


Music composed by Zhang Zengfan.

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