Dir: Gu Changwei. China. 2007. 105mins.

Former cinematographer Gu Changwei's follow-up to the well-received Peacock, which won a Berlin Silver Bear in 2005, sees the director teaming up once again with screenwriter Li Qiang for another 1980s period piece set in a provincial Chinese town. A funny-sad character study of a lonely, unattractive woman who dreams of becoming a leading opera singer, the ravishingly shot And The Spring Comes has an unhurried charm and a certain poignancy, but in this case the loose, episodic structure fails to deliver quite the same level of poetic payback as Gu Changwei's magical debut.

Sometimes a bravura performance can paper over flaws in the way a character has been scripted, and that's just what happens here: despite a compelling turn by a plumped-up, cosmetically uglified Jiang Wenli (which earned her a best actress award at the Rome Film Fest), the central character is never quite accessible enough to carry the film and not much is left once you take her away.

Gu promoted his first film energetically within China, where it took a little over $1m, a respectable haul for an arthouse title. With its provincial nostalgia trip and quirky character turns, And The Spring Comes may rival that result, but its main markets are going to be in festival and Asian niche slots elsewhere - where, however, it looks certain to underperform Peacock.

Steel worker Zhou Yu (Wu) hears Wang Cailing (Jiang) singing a Verdi aria through the public address system outside his factory and heads to the music academy where she teaches to ask if she can coach him in opera. We soon realise that he's less interested in singing than in Wang herself, despite her unprepossessing appearance which is made worse by a bad skin condition. But sharp, self-controlled Wang falls for his best friend, handsome but talentless artist Huang Sibao (Li) to whom she surrenders her thirty-year-old virginity - and who promptly humiliates and dumps her.

Wang, though, is used to hard knocks as we discover when we follow her to Beijing, where a fixer demands yet more money in exchange for the residence permit she is desperate to secure and where she is once again refused an audition at the Beijing Opera. Though we pick it up from a few hints and inferences, the script does not make enough of one of its key conflicts: the fact that the kind of Western-style opera beloved of Wang was frowned on in a China that had only recently emerged from the Cultural Revolution. The singer's problems are put in perspective when she befriends Hu Jinquan (Jiao), a male ballet dancer who is openly gay and who ends up getting himself sent to prison to get away from the greater prison outside. Episodes like this open and close, leaving us intrigued but not much the wiser about Wang's inner conflicts. The film's unexpectedly sentimental ending feels like a last-minute attempt to pull some of those loose threads together.

As we might expect from a director who lit Farewell My Concubine and Devils On The Doorsteps, the limpid photography is one of the great pleasures of Gu's film. Consisting mostly of a series of mostly fixed-camera shots, shot Ozu-style from low angles, the film plays extensively with mirrors and reflections, commenting, perhaps, on the unreliability of surface appearances. The lush soundtrack, which alternates Schubert lieder with classic arias from ninetenth-century Italian operas, will appeal to bel canto fans everywhere.

Production company/backer/international sales
Asian Union Film & Media
(86) 139 1131 7051

Gu Changwei
Er Yong

Li Qiang

Wang Lei

Production design
Yang Fan

Yang Hongyu

Dou Peng

Main cast
Jiang Wenli
Wu Guohua
Li Guangjie
Dong Xuan
Jiao Gang
Zhang Yao