Possibly the greatest Chinese film ever made: Spring in a Small Town
Spring in a Small Town (1948, Dir. Fei Mu)
Classics from the Golden Age of Chinese cinema are little-seen on UK shores, so it’s a treat to welcome Fei Mu’s last -and most revered- work onto screens this summer. Often lauded as the greatest Chinese film ever made, this sophisticated domestic drama unfolds patiently and painfully amid the war-torn ruins of an ancestral home.
Slowly drifting through the decimated outer walls of this isolated country home are the once-prosperous Dai family, the marriage between numbed patriarch Liyan and regret-filled Yuwen an ossified routine of duty. As they separately mourn the past, Liyan’s teenage sister Xiu skips merrily amongst the rubble and all three are eventually jolted by a visit from Liyan’s childhood friend, Shanghai doctor Zhang.
If the seasonal title and studied domestic observation make comparisons with Yasujiro Ozu inescapable, the arrival of Zhang and subsequent stirring of old feelings in Yuwen transform Spring in a Small Town into something a little more hot-blooded and melodramatic than the Japanese master’s main interests. While anticipating the coolly erotic breakdowns of Antonioni’s La Notte and L’Eclisse, Fei trains a more sympathetic eye on the repression and suffering inside a love-triangle that poses a necessary challenge to the singular bond of duty that ties Yuwen to her husband.
As Yuwen, Wei Wei is alternately rueful and flirtatious, gradually emerging from her fugue state at Zhang’s arrival, only to wrestle with frayed feelings of duty and devotion. It’s a wonderful performance, culminating in dead-eyed drunkenness during a memorable birthday for Xiu. And it is resolutely her film, Yuwen’s complex repository of emotion and despair spilling into a seemingly omniscient voiceover that frames the story in a poetic nether-space. As she details thoughts, feelings and events in a present tense that lends thoughtful distance and a lyric depth to her situation, the film sings. Consequently, the oppositional Liyan and Zhang are occasionally left stranded amidst their relative longing for the past, and Yuwen’s psychology seems altogether too much for the surrounding players in her story, including the overcooked cheer of Zhang Hongmei’s Xiu.
Thankfully, Fei’s camera is not an overbearing presence and his control is measured and total. Subtle shifts from bright and overgrown surroundings to dark, candlelit interiors that chase shadows up walls and silhouettes through windowpanes ensure the domination of mood. The influence can be clearly felt in Wong Kar-Wai, Fei’s carefully arranged sadness a direct forebear of the same kind that runs deep through In the Mood For Love and 2046.
Spring in a Small Town certainly isn’t novel in most respects for a film of the late ‘40s, but it certainly gives some much-needed exposure to an era of Chinese cinema that has remained unjustly hidden from view. Its value in this respect is immeasurable. Interest in it may lie chiefly in its sphere of influence down the years, but there is much to admire here, not least Wei Wei’s performance and the patience and maturity with which Fei allows these old friends to collide and collapse.