Toxic motherhood takes on strangely subversive, allegorical tones in Spring Tide (春潮, Chūn Cháo), Yang Lina’s painful examination of the relationships between three generations of Chinese women, each in different ways victims of the times in which they live. It’s true enough that the folk tunes sung so happily are often odes to the “motherland” which betray none of the eeriness of their propagandistic intentions in their full hearted endorsement of nation as family, but the darkness is inescapable as we see their metaphors made flesh in a woman destroyed by her sense of disappointment in life and in turn destroying her daughters literal and metaphorical in a pathological attempt to give her life meaning.
30-something Jianbo (Han Lei) is a socially conscious investigative journalist whose refusal to let sleeping dogs lie is a constant thorn in the side of her more conservative editor. At home, meanwhile, she’s mother to nine-year-old Wanting (Qu Junxi), who, we later realise is being raised by Jianbo’s feisty mother, Minglan (Elaine Jin Yan-ling), while she splits her time between the family’s backroom and a bed in a student dorm with occasional nights spent with an intense yet silent musician.
Aside from the obvious emotional disconnection, the fracture lines between mother and daughter are also ideological. Jianbo is a post-80s generation woman, she wants to hold mother China to account because she wants her society to be better than it is. She unroots scandal and corruption and brings them to light through the power of the press, trying to create real social change through shaming the populace into better patterns of behaviour. But her mother Minglan lived through the Cultural Revolution, because of all she’s suffered she thinks that things are fine the way they are and criticising the beneficent state is like scolding the person that raised you. Caught in the middle, Minglan’s fiancé Zhou (Li Wenbo) espouses contradictory views, at once proud to have Jianbo as a daughter because “journalists are the conscience of a country”, but also grateful for the iron rice bowl system that gave him a steady job, not to mention a pension and the old person’s flat that’s allowed him to meet Minglan.
Minglan’s life has indeed been full of suffering, though it is perhaps surprising how casually she and her friends remark on the terror they experienced during their youth while continuing to sing the old patriotic songs. “My motherland and I can’t be apart for a moment”, according to patriotic hit My People, My Country (我和我的祖国), but its tones suddenly seem sinister in their breeziness as we’re forced to consider the icy Minglan as a stand-in for China as a toxic mother, insisting that she must be respected and that her children must repay their debts to her, no matter how abusive she has been and may continue to be. To her friends in the retirement community, Minglan is a warm and caring woman, running the choir and organising local events, but she’s also blindsided by the suicide of a friend who took her own life because of an entirely different kind of filial disappointment coupled with existential loneliness. Minglan can’t understand why she did it, but in characteristic fashion largely makes it all about herself in lashing out at Jianbo when she points out that Mrs Wang was not as happy about their (read: Minglan’s) potential retirement plan as Minglan had believed her to be.
“When were you going to realise this was a family and not a battlefield?” Jianbo asks her mother knowing that she can make no further reply. The tug of love over motherhood of Wanting is, in many ways, a tussle over the future of China. Minglan digs her nails in, telling Wanting a few hurtful truths about her mother while insisting that you really can’t trust anyone anymore but that’s OK because grandma loves you, while Jianbo remains powerless to reassume her maternity knowing that her only weapon is to avoid unduly antagonising her mother in the hope that she won’t end up alienating Wanting in the same way Minglan alienated her. All that exists between them now is a torrent of resentment, Minglan seeing her daughter only as the symbol of all her frustrated desires, and Jianbo knowing she’s become a sad and lonely woman solely because her mother refused to love her in the way she wanted to be loved. Jianbo is determined that she won’t let Minglan’s “vanity and hypocrisy” corrupt her pretty, sensitive daughter, pushing her towards an “ignoble and ridiculous life”. She wants Wanting to be free of this chain of abuse and all its authoritarian gaslighting, but has no mechanism to free her other than distance.
Wanting, by contrast, is cheerful and kind. She has absolutely no filter and is entirely unafraid of asking difficult questions, but is also brave and strong, willing to stand up for others. A little girl in her class who happens to be from the Korean minority is criticised for her “poor” Mandarin and ordered to switch seats but her new buddy refuses to sit with her because he claims not to be able to understand what she’s saying. Wanting immediately pipes up that she understands perfectly, instantly becoming the girl’s best friend and visiting her home which appears to be one of immense harmony and happiness where her dad whirls her round while proudly singing Arirang, standing in stark contrast to Minglan’s joyous yet somehow self-involved recitals. China as an authoritarian mother may be losing its grip on power, while Jianbo’s generation struggles to free itself from the trauma of toxic parenting, but there is perhaps hope for Wanting as she and her friend decide to leave the patriotism showcase to follow the spring tide right out into a wide river of joy and freedom.