SPRING IN A SMALL TOWN

(Xia chen zhi chun)

Directed by Fei Mu. China. 1948.

Reviewed by Alan Pavelin and Howard Schumann


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For some years I was vaguely aware of a legendary short-story-based Chinese film called Spring in a Small Town, made in 1948, banned during the Cultural Revolution, and virtually unseen outside China.  So I was interested to read of Tian Zhuangzhuangís remake, called Springtime in a Small Town, which was released in 2003 and certainly lived up to its excellent reviews (see Howard Schumannís review).  It is an  exquisite Chekhovian chamber-piece, with just five characters, beautifully acted in the understated manner of much Oriental cinema, full of suppressed emotions in the style of Brief Encounter and, more relevantly, In the Mood for Love

What subsequently interested me far more was to hear of a one-off cinema screening of Fei Muís 1948 film, not from an original print (which is unobtainable) but from a video recording made by an enterprising film critic 10 years ago when, amazingly, it was shown on Australian TV.  To attend this screening I had to visit Cambridge, whose Film Festival over the years has had several one-off screenings of extremely interesting films which have never emerged in London.  This was probably its first-ever screening in the UK, though an unsubtitled version is reputed to be available in Chinese video stores in Western cities.  The picture and sound quality was understandably poor, but the greatness of Fei Muís film shone through and made a fascinating comparison with Tianís remake.

The story, set in 1946 just after the Japanese occupation of China, is simple.  A chronically sick man, Liyan, is visited by an old friend Zhichen who,it transpires, was once the sweetheart of Liyanís wife Yuwen. The old passions are aroused but cannot be openly expressed.  After Liyan unsuccessfully tries to fix up his friend with his young sister and thenattempts suicide, Zhichen leaves, and Liyan and Yuwen resume their drab existence.

Both versions have the same setting and tell basically the same story.  There are differences of detail; Tianís rather longer remake begins with the visitorís arrival (which is delayed in the original) and has an extra scene of a dancing class at the young sisterís school; he also makes far more of the sisterís sixteenth birthday party where, in a wonderful extended take, the characters gradually lurch towards drunkenness.  The husbandís illness is also treated differently, and he seems an even more morose character than in the original.  It is good that the
remake is not one of those fashionable postmodern parodies, but is simply a modern retelling of the same story, with colour instead of black-and-white, and pin-sharp images which make it a stunningly beautiful film.

There are more important differences, however, which to my mind work in favour of the earlier film. Tianís remake is an objective account, with a constantly roaming camera, generally at a distance, observing the drama which is taking place.  Muís original, with frequent dissolves even within scenes and with several close-ups, has a narrative voice-over by the wife which, if the subtitling is correct, veers between past and present tenses.  The impression given is that we are watching the events as she subjectively recalls them, similar to the technique used by Robert Bresson in Diary of a Country Priest. The suppressed passions are more powerful in the original film, the black-and-white photography aided by the lighting producing stunning effects, Jean Vigoís 1934 film
LíAtalante being a classic example of this technique. 

In both films the acting is quite superb, once again underlining the fact that the most moving and convincing screen performances are light-years away from the over-the-top rants and raves we are unfortunately so used to in TV soaps etc.  I would instance the way the actresses playing Yuwen, in response to any number of statements by Zhichen about his past life or whatever, breathe a whispered ďohĒ or ďahĒ in a manner that speaks volumes about the passions swirling within her.

It is rumoured that a new print is being prepared of Muís Spring in a Small Town, and that it may have its first UK release in 2004.  We shall then have the opportunity to make a more considered comparison between two outstanding film versions of the same story.

Alan Pavelin


Produced in 1948 prior to the Communist takeover in China, Spring in a Small Town is a lyrical depiction of the intense psychological rivalry between two friends for the love of one woman. Directed by Fei Mu and based on a short story by Li Tianji, the film dramatizes the emotional entanglement of four people, conveying an intense eroticism that is powerful and haunting. Dai Liyan (Shi Yu), and his wife Zhou Yuwen, magnificently portrayed by the alluring Wei Wei, live in his old family house with Liyan's teenage sister, Dai Xiu (Zhang Hongmei) and the family servant Lao Huang (Cui Chaoming). Because of Liyan's tuberculosis, they are forced to sleep in separate rooms. Yuwen is a loyal and devoted wife but is bored and prefers to spend her time embroidering or going for solitary walks along the top of the crumbling city wall. 

When Zhang Zhichen (Li Wei), a boyhood friend of Liyan who is now a doctor arrives from Shanghai, it is revealed that Yuwen was his childhood sweetheart when she was only sixteen. The tension becomes palpable as each character is forced to hide their true self and feelings are expressed only with glances, body language, mannerisms, and silence. Zhichen's arrival brings a spark of life to the moribund household and soon all are taking walks together, singing songs, and playing games. The relationship between Yuwen and Zhichen slowly becomes rekindled and is crystallized at Xiu's 16th birthday party when both have too much to drink. When Yuwen cuts her hand on broken glass after a struggle with Zhichen, however, a distressing event occurs that transforms everyone's life.

Spring in a Small Town has an elegance and intimacy that I found lacking in the remake last year by Tian Zhuanghuang. By depicting events from Yuwen's point of view and adding a poetic voiceover, Mu's film brings us much closer to the characters. Spring in a Small Town did not receive immediate critical acclaim when it was released and Fei Mu was labeled a "rightist" and left for Hong Kong, never to make another film. The film only began to find its audience when the China Film Archive made a new print in the early 80s. Now many Chinese critics consider it the greatest Chinese film ever made. I certainly would not argue with that. 

Howard Schumann
 
 
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