Feng Jizhen, a retired physics professor turned volunteer sanitation worker, has long grown into a life of asceticism and discipline, never taking a day off even during the worst weather. The 65-year-old, who is also the sole caregiver of her aged mother, thrived in her routine—that is, until she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, which threatened to turn her into an entirely different person.
Soon, Feng finds herself with a failing memory, grappling with intense feelings of self-loathing, unprecedented waves of agitation, and even violent tendencies towards her mother. In the face of her daughter’s debilitating condition, 85-year-old Jiang Yuzhi, once frail and timid, takes on the task of a fearless caregiver in a stunning role reversal.
Song of Spring, a film by Chinese director Yang Lina, tells the story of this mother-daughter pair whose lives take on a new glow during Feng’s losing battle against Alzheimer’s.
In the film, stricken with dementia, Feng appears at times dazed and numb, and at other moments, intensely agitated. Her diagnosis has also severely impacted her mother.
“I feel like motherhood is full of complex emotions,” said Yang, who compares human motherhood to that of salmon, a species that expends so much of its energy birthing children that they die shortly after spawning. Through the film, Yang hopes to raise awareness about the challenges of being an elderly woman in China while caring for a debilitated child.
But despite Feng and Jiang’s tragic circumstances in the film, Yang thinks that it’s still possible to see the silver lining in their uphill battle. In one of Feng’s hallucinating episodes, she blurted out a cryptic message to her mother: “Mom is the ocean, I'm a drop of water, and dad is a whale that can't swim.” The child-like metaphor was a glimpse into her inner world, where the love of her mother is represented by a vast ocean surrounding her. In the film, the sea is also a key motif for the pair’s relationship, making appearances at the most significant moments of their interaction.
Besides the emotional exploration of family ties, Yang said that the characters in Song of Spring are also a tribute to a tragic generation of Chinese intellectuals who have emerged from historical trauma. Feng’s family of intellectuals—her mother a Chinese language teacher and her late father an archaeologist—represents some of the prime targets of Maoists before and during the Cultural Revolution, where educated individuals were persecuted for their links to privilege.
“As the cornerstone for a civilized society, cinema has to look back at these female intellectuals. The movie is a tribute to the old generation of intellectuals,” said Yang.
Song of Spring is the last in Yang's trilogy of women-centric films. Longing for the Rain, the first of the trilogy, premiered in 2013 at the International Film Festival Rotterdam but was banned from release in China for its theme of female sexual desire. The second film, Spring Tide, which told the story of three generations of women, found its way to an audience through streaming media in 2019. Water, a prominent motif for the fates of the three protagonists in Spring Tide, makes a similar reappearance in Song of Spring.
While the trilogy was filmed over the span of a decade, Yang has maintained a strong focus on women’s issues—from their work life to family relationships, sex, marriage, and death.
“I am loyal to feminism,” Yang said of her choice to produce predominantly women-centric films. “I don’t mind at all being defined as a feminist director. I tell the story of women’s lives, I gladly accept that.”
“Under the East Asian society’s scrutiny of women, from the love lives of older women to marriage, I think we need more tolerance, focusing on these women’s inner world and real lives.”
In partnership with Real Image Media Collection.