(Xia cheng zhi chun)

Directed by Tian Zhuanghuang. China/Hong Kong/France. 2002

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Springtime in a Small Town is the first film in a decade from renowned Chinese director Tian Zhuangzhuang, one of the leading figures of the so-called "Fifth Generation" until he was banned from making pictures after his 1993 film, The Blue Kite, which was sharply critical of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. This new work, a remake of the 1946 drama, Spring in a Small Town by director Fei Mu, does not delve into any explosive political issues, but is actually quite conservative in its ethic. "Making this film felt like communicating with a master," states Zhuangzhuang. "I never stopped learning from Fei Mu. That's what made it possible to restart my career as a director." 

Dai Liyan (Wu Jun) and his wife Yuwen (Hu Jingfan) live in a war-damaged house with Liyan's sister Xiu and their housekeeper Huang. The film beautifully captures the atmosphere of a once-grand mansion that has barely survived. The married couple sleep in separate rooms, their lives without intimacy or passion as a result of Liyan's undiagnosed illness that he believes to be tuberculosis, though the film hints that it may be psychosomatic. 

When an old friend, a 30-year old doctor from Shanghai, Zhang Zhichen (Xin Bai Qing), comes to visit and discovers that Liyan's wife was his childhood sweetheart, his passion is immediately re-ignited. The ensuing rivalry of two very different men for the love of one woman is played out with subtlety and intelligence. Similar in theme and mood to Wong Kar-Wei's In the Mood for Love, each character is forced to conceal his or her true feelings, perhaps out of social propriety or moral concerns. Though I admired the inner nobility of the characters, I felt distanced by the husband's extreme passivity, and saddened by the unfulfilled longing of the two central protagonists. 

Howard Schumann
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