Directed by Fei Mu, Spring in a Small Town was released in 1948, before the communist overthrow of China. This meant it was supressed and Fei Mu fled Hong Kong, dying only two years later. But it resurfaced in the 1980’s, as the China Film Archive opened it’s doors and Spring in a Small Town was championed, earning itself the spot of No 1 Chinese film in 2005 at Hong Kong Film Awards. The BFI has a new digital release of the film, with its first theatrical run in the UK, coming to cinemas this weekend.
Take David Lean’s Brief Encounter and blend it together with Wong Kar Wai’s In The Mood For Love and you’ll be close to what Spring in a Small Town is. While Brief Encounter has steam trains and the intense gaze of Trevor Howard, this particular film holds a little more subtlety. Situated in the ruins of a large estate, Zhou Yuwen (Wei Wei) is considered the heroine of this tale, as she looks after her invalid husband Dai Liyan (Shi Yu). She is not alone, with her teenage sister-in-law Dai Xiu (Zhang Hongmai) and faithful servant Lao Huang (Cui Chaoming). It is the arrival of Liyan’s friend, and Yuwen’s teenage love, Zhang Zhichen (Li Wei) that shakes the dynamic of what is Yuwen’s life.
Fei Mu manages to capture the moments between each and every character – between the wife and husband; the deep longing between wife and visitor; the sister-in-law who knows her brother’s wife very well indeed. The deliberate dissolves that happen as a static shot depicting the two characters emit a haunting, brief passing of time is innovative and different. The long-shots that capture the walk away, or around the desolate house, highlight the destroyed house and the historical importance of this context. Spring in a Small Time expands on the love-triangle narrative with important and deeply personal historical truth. The connection to Wong Kar Wai’s In The Mood For Love is even more apparent here. Kar Wai’s masterpiece, set in the 1960’s, depicts a romance that’s present through a passing-by in the stairs or within the claustrophobic space of the apartments. The silence and small-space of the husbands-friend, Zhichen, means that as Zhou Yuwen visits him in his room, it feels tense and powerful.
The slow-pace is a challenge, and the cultural significance is a difficult grasp for those not accustomed to Chinese cinema. But, there is something eerie and striking about the performances and delivery of this drama. Throughout, Zhou Yuwen narrates her story. She is opening a small hole into her private life, and her strict demeanour means that we know more than anyone – indeed, can she open up to anyone else? Noah Cowen, writing for Sight and Sound, reiterates the films significance – “The film’s use of voiceover – eerily presaging the French New Wave … one cannot help but think Orson Welle’s highly original use of dissolves in Citizen Kane”, this is cinema at its most significant. And to directly influence Wong Kar Wai and Zhang Yimou means that it is a film every Chinese film connoisseur needs to watch.
This review was originally written for Flickering Myth on June 20th 2014