Spring 23 – winner of the FIPRESCI Award

in 70th Oberhausen International Short Film Festival

by Yun-hua Chen

Spring 2023 marked the first Lunar New Year celebrated by the Chinese people since the end of zero-COVID-19 policies following the nationwide White Paper Protests that began in November 2022. No more quarantine for weeks on end when moving between cities. No more fear of coloured health codes. Yet, with the abrupt end of stringent disease control measures, COVID-19 cases rose sharply, and unofficial figures linked millions of deaths to this sudden change. 

As suggested by its title, the Chinese short film Spring 23 (Chūn Èr shí sān) by Wang Zhiyi is set during this period. The protagonist, Maosen, having recently lost his parents, is instructed by bureaucrats to wait until the end of the Spring festival to apply for the cancellation of their household registration. The registration system, a form of social control, restricts internal migration between agricultural and non-agricultural areas, primarily benefiting urban residents. Meanwhile, Shaoyang County, along with numerous other regions in China, implements a ban on fireworks during the Lunar New Year festivities. In this particular time and space, Maosen finds himself facing the New Year celebrations without his family and unable to set off fireworks.

As Maosen embarks upon a journey in search of illegal fireworks, this seemingly straightforward tale of a young man’s obsession reveals itself to be much more. Fireworks, those brief sparkles of chemicals, embody childhood memories spent with loved ones who are no longer there, freedom of movement and action, as well as the desire to commemorate those who passed amid overcrowded crematoriums, and celebrate the end of the three-year pandemic era. With a touch of Kaurismäki-style deadpan humour, Spring 23 satirises the absurdity of the ban, and, by extension, all the nonsensical regulations that made proper farewells during the pandemic nearly impossible.

In this independently produced film, London Film School-trained Wang Zhiyi wears multiple hats, serving as writer, cinematographer, editor, colourist, producer, and even acting a minor role as a city inspector (akin to policemen but outside the regulated police force). His use of an analogue-like colour palette is in the vein of Jia Zhangke’s A Touch of Sin (Tian Zhu Ding; 2013), with daylight dimmed and red hues emphasised, while nighttime scenes are rendered even more sombre. 

Rocky Irvano’s laconic score, consisting almost entirely of slow percussive pulses topped with the occasional sprinkle of singing bowls, not only emphasises the film’s natural tempo but also serves as a sonic portrayal of both the film’s exterior and interior world. This rhythm is carefully timed by Wang. Each scene takes as long as it needs to elicit the intended effect. Long tracking shots are employed outdoors, yet upon Maosen’s entry into the first fireworks shop, the camera circles around him, repositioning him amidst a vivid array of red objects used in folk ceremonies – in this place that he cannot truly call home. 

The film takes on an almost road movie-like quality, as Maosen, clad in his black leather jacket, navigates the landscape on his red motorcycle. Like Chen Sheng in Bi Gan’s Kaili Blues (Lu Bian Ye Can; 2015), Maosen exudes the carefree charm of an ordinary person living in godforsaken rural areas and silently moving forward to tackle real-world problems. His performance is relatable, authentic and effortlessly funny in a bittersweet manner.

Shaoyang County, one of the counties with the highest rates of emigration in Hunan Province, is Maosen’s post-grief wasteland, a post-trauma any-space-whatever that is deserted, forgotten, yet inhabited. The space around Kongquetan Hydropower station, a carefully chosen locale, becomes another film character, with the riverbank half dry, a hastily constructed makeshift designated COVID-19 hospital lying abandoned, streets strewn with confusion; fireworks shops shuttered although glimpses of them can still be seen scattered throughout the town. 

Against the backdrop of Maosen throwing rocks into the river after his first batch of fireworks is confiscated in a tragicomical way, we see a piece of empty land littered with rubble and discarded rocks that appear to have been artificially cut and once earmarked for construction, while a bridge is adorned with a conspicuous red piece of machinery atop it. Along the street that traverses the village, makeshift scaffolding is constructed to house temporary memorial altars for the deceased, as well as outdoor kitchens to prepare meals for mourners. The village road, the aorta of the village life, functions as meeting point for life’s milestones, from cradle to grave.

As surreal as it sounds, while the most reliable information about a clandestine fireworks vendor is found spray-painted on an electricity pole, hidden under another layer of advertisements, Maosen ultimately procures fireworks from a group of preschool children in front of a recycling centre station, strewn with piles of paper cardboard and bags of recycled plastic. This is Wang’s unique blend of contrasting tones and unexpected twists, which might evoke comparisons to the works of the Coen Brothers. Like the Coens’ depiction of America, Wang shows that the vast landscape of China holds just as many quirky moments.  

A young director unafraid to tackle death and grief as a subject matter, as also demonstrated in his previous short film Some Manifestations of the South (2020) premiered at Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival, Wang Zhiyi is acutely observant of the comedic even in the darkest moments. He perceives complex issues in the smallest incidents, politically aware yet subtle in his way of expression, with a cinephilic penchant for film knowledge while striving to create his own aesthetic. 


Yun-hua Chen
Edited by Birgit Beumers