Three generations of one family turn a little apartment into a small-scale war zone in Yang Lina’s bracing, claustrophobic drama. It isn’t unusual for there to be friction in the dynamic between grandmother, mother, and daughter, but here the three represent the recent ages of China in a microcosm; fervent Communism, post-Tiananmen cynicism, and the brash new force whose future could go either way. Emotional blackmail, manipulation, passive aggression, and barely-repressed resentments are never far away, but they’re merely skirting an unspoken pain that’s just too big to question. Set over an uncertain time period in fits and starts, Spring Tide occasionally lapses into sullen silences and melancholy longueurs, but marks an impressive continuation in her development from documentarian to dramatic filmmaker.

40-something journalist Jianbo (Lei Hao) is forced to live between a dorm she shares with undergraduates, and the cramped apartment owned by her mother Minglan (Elaine Jin). Minglan also seems to do most of the caring duties for Wanting (Qu Junxi) and isn’t above weaponising her status as homeowner and babysitter. Jianbo reacts to her mother’s flamboyant needling and diva-level sulks with a practiced sullen silence, one that won’t get her dragged into an argument, but will encourage further histrionics from Minglan nonetheless. Nine-year-old Wanting often ends up in a tug-of-war between the two women, but seems surprisingly mature and somewhat adroit in the darker arts of the older women herself.

The drama in Spring Tide is resolutely small scale. Every time Yang glances at a bigger moment, or more explosive subject matter (like an early molestation case at a local school) she pulls back to her central trio again. There’s a constant cycle of tension and release as Minglan and Jianbo are pulled closer into each other’s orbit until the next inevitable collision. This also unfortunately gives the film a sense of wearying repetition, clearly intentionally – both women seem intent on eroding each other infinitesimally until they can get to the core of their derision for the other – and means the viewer feels every minute of its two hour run time.

Nevertheless, the central trio are fantastic in their roles, particularly young Qu Junxi as Wanting who gives a performance of flinty calculation underneath her rambunctiousness. Jin and Hao butt heads superbly, their contrasting styles complementing the other rather than highlighting flaws. Hao is understated, to the point of catatonia at times. Even Jianbo’s sexual encounters are conducted without words and without the sense of any genuine affection. Jin’s performance is the showier, but not theatrically so. Minglan feeds off the obligations she stokes in her daughter, seeing her Jianbo’s reliance on her as a symbolic demonstration of her Communist ideals.

Somewhat sadly, in a film so driven by complex feminine perspectives the greatest sticking point between the women is a man. An absent one for sure, Minglan’s husband and Jianbo’s father, and how their recollections of him as a person differ. Was he an abuser, a pervert, and a cheat as Minglan posits? Or was his only crime loving his daughter more than his wife, as Jianbo recalls? That they never have this conversation face to face is evidence of the film’s pessimistic stance about the difficulties in communication and reconciliation. Whereas in the character of Wanting, who gets the final bow as she wades into a sudden swell of water, there is the possibility of China’s future being able to reckon with its past. Yang leaves everything tantalisingly, frustratingly, open.

For a film that hinges on its cruelty, Spring Tide is surprisingly beautiful. Cinematographer Jake Pollock films his cramped interiors and pinched faces with a gauzy ethereality that makes the increasingly painful conflicts much easier to take. Its style suits the meandering, episodic narrative offering a floaty air of disassociation that is analogous to the relationships between its generational avatars. It would have been easy to lodge such a tough narrative in grit, but this approach goes a long way to masking some of the film’s shortcomings.

Far from perfect, but wonderfully acted and admirably grounded in a solid and believable core, if this is Yang Lina’s Spring, then we shall look forward to Summer immensely.

Screening as part of Glasgow Film Festival from Thu 25 Feb 2021