Spring Tide is a portrait of the quiet psychological war of one family. Three generations of women live in one flat. The grandmother is a relentless hammer on the mother, irritated by her mere presence, emotionally abusive and spiteful for any perceived slight. The mother has grown silent through years of experience, knowing that engaging with the grandmother’s rants will have no benefit. The daughter is confused and disorientated, constantly being manipulated as a pawn by the grandmother against the mother, and so by turns spoiled and scolded, held up as an achievement of the grandmother’s guidance or denigrated as the culmination of all the mother’s shame.
This is a triptych of character studies, rather than a story with a plot. The tension in the household pushes the characters forward, rather than any quest or instigated drama. Without a direct throughline of the story, that only increases the suspense of the film, because you are constantly waiting for I-know-not-what, some form of emotional explosion or implosion or catharsis, and there is no indication of what form it will come in. You are gripped by the prospect of the tension swelling into a tide of change or collapsing back into a withdrawal and defeat.
The mother is largely silent in the film, except in her final scene where she says everything that needs said. Outside of the home, she has a career and respect, and inwardly she has a strong sense of herself, unbroken by her mother. Yet inside the house, she is like a dog too used to being beaten. She weathers the grandmother’s rages like a storm, still as a sturdy tree beneath lightning and thunder. She gives no reaction, denies any satisfaction at the constant torrent of abuse poured on her. It looks exhausting.
The grandmother is greedily eager for others’ good opinion of her. She takes part in community events, takes interest in her neighbours, keeps in touch with old classmates, and generally garners the liking and praise of all. She projects an image of an ideal citizen, conscientious and caring, responsible and generous with her time. No one would believe the mother were she to actually tell what it was like living with her. At home she is vicious, unyielding, manipulative, and spiteful. She seems to find provocation in the very sight of the mother, who scurries to her room like a shadow so as to minimise the grandmother’s opportunities to explode.
The daughter is only 9-years-old and confused by the ever-changing atmosphere around her. The grandmother constantly pitches her against her mother, and misrepresents her. In addition to the constant gaslighting, there are also unspoken secrets, like who her father was, how he died, where her mother was for the first few years of her life, and why she was not around so much. This digging for the genuine facts of her life is further muddied by her grandmother’s continually changing family narrative based on her moods and rages.
One of the repeated battles between the grandmother and mother is that of the memory of the grandfather. The grandmother claims he was a terrible husband, a sex offender, and the source of all her woes. The daughter appears to have a kind memory of him. And you’re not sure if that is just the innocence of the eyes of a child, or if this, like so much of what the grandmother says, is just another story to gain her sympathy and allow her to frame herself as the victim of abuse, rather than the perpetrator. The grandmother is excellent at pressing true facts into telling false stories. But to the mother, the grandfather was just another member of the family the grandmother defeated, and now in his absence, she destroys any trace of him, down to even his good memory.
To some degree, these generations are the generations of China. The grandmother is fiercely patriotic, forgiving of past hardships under Mao, and happy to constantly change the story of her life to suit the needs of the moment. The mother is a journalist, interested only in the truth, exposing shortcomings and corruption, and wanting to hold people to account. The daughter is the trying to sift through what she’s being told for what to actually believe, trying to get her personality out from under the baggage of the older generations, and find the truth about her identity.
A really compelling film.