Saturday, September 14, 2013

Spring in a Small Town (Xiao cheng zhi chun)

Spring in a Small Town (Xiao cheng zhi chun)
Director: Fei Mu
Starring: Wei Wei, Shi Yu, Li Wei

When I took my first, massive swipe at knocking off titles from 1001 Movies, I went chronologically by decade, something I’m very glad of in retrospect.  The biggest advantage to doing this was to encounter trends in filmmaking as they happened.  The second advantage was watching how national cinemas appeared, or perhaps disappeared.  Take Germany for example: going chronologically, I watched lots of German films in the beginning, then nothing, not for decades.  Rather poignant, that.  On the flip side, there is only one Chinese film that predates Spring in a Small Town in 1001 Movies, indicating that, at least according to the editors of this book, Chinese cinema was still in its birth during the early decades of filmmaking.  Spring in a Small Town was one of the first Chinese films to rise to international stature, one of the first to be considered worth preserving and worth seeing still to this day.

The story is ripped straight from standard drawing room drama tales.  Yuwen (Wei) has been married for eight years to her invalided husband Liyan (Li).  We learn very early on that theirs is a loveless marriage, although they are still affectionate with one another.  She is bored and suffocated by her endlessly repeated existence.  Enter Zhichen (Shi), Liyan’s friend from childhood and Yuwen’s former love.  Her resolve is thoroughly tested as the passion she used to feel and thought dead and buried begins to rise again.

I find it fascinating to discover the same sort of tropes I’m used to encountering in Western costume dramas here, in a Chinese film from the forties.  I think that’s telling; it indicates that there are similarities between all cultures, even in basic romantic storylines.  How often have I seen this story played out, this sad sort of repressed love?  Many, MANY times.  I don’t hold this against Spring in a Small Town, the fact that it’s telling a story I’ve heard before; if anything, I like it more for telling a story I am familiar with from its own unique cultural perspective.  And the China that is on display in Spring in a Small Town is from a very distinct time period and culture.  (I will at this point reiterate my comparative ignorance about world history – thank you, New Hampshire public education – so please, this is just a quick review of what I taught myself on the interwebs; if I am grievously mistaken on anything, please let me know.)  The second world war was over, China was no longer under Japanese control, but the Communist Revolution had not yet taken over.  This was a relatively short time period, and the artistic result is a film with very little, if any, political commentary.  Spring in a Small Town is a simple, sad little romance about a repressed woman and her long lost lover who is definitely NOT her husband.  It does not feel allegorical or symbolic of larger issues.  No, it is simply a romantic drama, nothing more or less.  This is probably a large reason of why, when the Communist Revolution did succeed, Spring in a Small Town was roundly denigrated, then forgotten, and nearly destroyed.  I’m glad the film survived, though; it’s worth a viewing, at least one, because of its purity of intent and because, well, it certainly does repression well.

Spring in a Small Town gets very angsty.  It moves slowly – it is practically the definition of the slow burn.  And there’s little payoff.  In my first go around with Spring in a Small Town, I remember feeling enraptured by this furtive, repressed romance between Yuwen and Zhichen.  This time, I was less affected by it, but it still has its moments.  Despite the, um, VERY slow build up, I was still caught up when Yuwen gets drunk, slips up, and throws herself at Zhichen.  And it takes every smidgen of strength he has to do the honorable thing.  And I rather enjoy it.

Spring in a Small Town is very reminiscent of Brief Encounter.  Repressed woman narrating her own tale of romantic feelings for a man, a doctor, who is not her husband?  Brief Encounter.  Frankly, Brief Encounter does it better – loads better – but the voice over narration in particular I find important in Spring in a Small Town.  Just like in Brief Encounter, it is crucial in providing us a critical window to Laura’s soul so we understand her, we need that gateway to Yuwen, perhaps even more so.  As much as Laura presents a calm façade to the outside world, Yuwen is one hundred times more serene on the outside, never letting on for a second what might be happening under the surface.  This is actually a bit of a detriment to the film; I needed more than a voice over to convince me of the magnitude of Yuwen’s feelings, and the actress didn’t quite manage to convince me on performance alone.

The other major mark against Spring in a Small Town is the condition of the film itself.  This is, sadly, a film that has not been preserved well in the slightest.  The DVD is watchable, certainly, and the English subtitles were clear (not always a given), but the image is hazy and foggy and full of scratches.  The sound isn’t any better; it’s muffled and the background static is incredibly loud.  Even the original filming conditions seem less than perfect, as the background noise cuts out in certain parts of scenes, indicating that there was just no sound, PERIOD, while recording.  The story works well enough in Spring in a Small Town, but the logistics are incredibly lacking.  It’s very difficult when it’s this bad not to let this affect my read on a movie. 

Spring in a Small Town was remade in China in the early 2000s, and I’m not surprised.  The story is universal enough and works pretty well, but the original film could use a brush up, more style, better acting, and any sort of a soundtrack.  I have not seen the remake, but I’m glad at least someone thought it worthy of telling again.  Frankly, though, if I want angsty romance, there are plenty of other films I’d choose over Spring in a Small Town (Brief Encounter most definitely).

Arbitrary Rating: 6/10


  1. I liked this film well enough, but nothing in it really stuck with me. Like you said it was interesting seeing another culture's take on the age old story. By the way, 1934 Chinese film The Goddess made it in from the latest edition. I just watched it. I liked it.

    In regards to World History, did your education go something like this: Egypt, Roman Empire, Europe, the end? You should have snuck across the border into Maine. You might have been able to pass as a native as long as you changed all "er" suffixes to "ah". You would have been caught if you ever asked, "what's a 'sales tax'?", though.

    1. My history education went like this:

      "Let's start in 1500's England so we can all understand why the Puritans came to America."

      Two years later:
      "And there you have it kids, up through 1980s America."

      Seriously, Chip, I had two years of US History and ZERO world history of ANY kind. yaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay. This is the single biggest gap in my education, and given that I am a science person first and a literature person second, I have never had any compunction to remedy it. Didn't have to take history in college as my AP scores opted me out of it and didn't need it for my major. Philosophy, sociology, humanities, theater, yes, but no history. So I've got a major weak spot there.

  2. I liked this one well enough, but I remember the print being egregiously bad. I didn't realize there was a remake--I'd love to see Criterion take a whack at this one and fix the print that exists.

    I agree with you on Brief Encounter. I liked that better and I remember it more.

    1. This is a film in desperate need of some company to take it under its wing and give the whole thing a facelift. I admit I'm a little curious about the remake.

  3. Sorry to come back so late, but this is how it goes when I insist on watching the films before reading about them.
    I think you liked this one better than I did. Where you saw subtle acting I saw exageration. I think this felt like acting, over-acting all the way through. It is typical Chinese theater style, so it is no wonder, but it grates on me. I much much prefer Brief Encounter and In the Mood for Love.