Four Springs (China, 2018) [CVF 2019]

Four Springs is not the kind of independent film one would expect to draw much attention in China, particularly given that it is a low-budget documentary about family members by a first-time filmmaker. Many similar films have been shut out of the commercial circuit before. This one, however, was released nationwide in China’s multiplexes in January, drawing support from such high-profile celebrities as Zhao Wei, Huang Bo, and Zhou Dongyu. So what’s so special about Four Springs?

At first glance, it appears quite ordinary with the distinctive feel of a home video.  Shot between 2013 and 2016, the documentary is loosely tied together through annual Chinese New Year family gatherings in southern Guizhou, filmmaker Lu Qingyi’s hometown. The main subjects are Lu’s retired elderly parents, Yunkun and Guixian, and the theme is their everyday life. 

The first year is all about the two elderly’s food preparations for the family, decoration of their modest two-story house for the New Year, dinner gatherings of family members, and repeated excursions to the mountains. The only memorable things about the older couple are their easy smiles and their extraordinary gift for singing and playing music. They burst into songs at a moment’s notice and the father figure, a former teacher, in particular, plays a variety of musical instruments, including the violin, the bamboo flute, accordion, and erhu.

It’s not until mid-way through the film, when the parents suffer the tragic loss of an adult child (one of the director’s older siblings) to cancer that we catch the first hint of the elderly couple’s unusual outlook. Rather than falling into deep despair, they keep themselves busy by making grave visits a focal point of their lives. There’s a strong bond between the two, seen in how they take turns grooming each other, help each other climb mountains and shade each other with umbrellas. They plant trees and flowers around the grave, making it look like a beautiful garden. On the mountains they burst into song as they look into the distance, losing themselves to memories of happier times. Death is but a natural part of life in their eyes, and we never get a sense of regret, anger, or they find life unfair. Their resilience, calm acceptance of separations and life’s ebbs and flows are what make them truly remarkable.

The couple is hardly free from worry or doubt about their own mortality and advancing age. A few months after the funeral, Lu’s mother confides in private about her fears of what might become of her husband if she’s no longer around. And at one point, Lu’s father wonders aloud, “What would I do when I get to be so old I can no longer take care of myself?” Yet neither of the two lingers on this doubt. They keep up with their hobbies: sewing, tending honeybees, fixing broken things around the house, collecting herbs on the mountains and singing together. This whole time they rejoice in the small wonders of life, at the returning swallows under the eaves, the sweet scents of blooming honeysuckles, ultimately letting their mutual love, hearty laughter, and unshakable optimism prevail.

Four Springs is not without its flaws. At 105 minutes, the film starts to feel a bit long and occasionally repetitive. The inclusion of several family videos and still shots slows down the flow, suggesting the documentary could benefit from a more careful edit. Yet these shortcomings don’t take away from its well-observed and memorable images. Fluttering red curtains, the father figure playing the long flute at the end of a corridor, the two parents sitting in adjacent rooms doing what they love – his hands waving as he watches videos of old songs on his computer, her making clothes with an old, tired sewing machine – are stunning, vividly capturing their simple, poetic life and small moments of lucid joy. 

Forty-five-year-old Lu, who started filmmaking in 2015, writes that the idea of documenting his parents’ life was sparked by an essay he’d posted on the Internet about his father in 2012 that gathered thousands of hits and well wishes from readers. He says this surprising outpouring propelled him to re-examine his parents’ seemingly “common” life. 

The film is a tribute to Lu’s parents and presents us with a montage of mini lessons about life and love that we’ve too often forgotten in the bustle of modern life – how to slow down to smell the flowers; how to nurture our souls through art and music, which can be a powerful antidote to depression; how to spend as much time as possible with our loved ones; and most importantly, how to live a life full of grace and gratitude even when we face irretrievable loss.   

Four Springs is a slow moving documentary that requires a bit of patience. But it’s well worth the effort. At a time when so many of us are driven by pressure and the temptation to make more money at the expense of family relationships, our mental health and the quality of life, Four Springs gives us pause to rethink what’s really important in life.  

Four Springs is showing at the Chinese Visual Festival on May 7.