Spring in a Small Town, one of the masterpieces of Chinese cinema, is an intimate drama of gestures and silences. In the ruins of his semi-destroyed family home, Dai Liyan (Shi Yu) sits sickly and depressed, himself a half-wrecked bit of human flotsam. His wife Yuwen (Wei Wei), estranged yet dutiful, goes mechanically through her daily chores in order to enjoy a few moments to herself as she wanders along the ruined city wall.
They are attended by the faithful family retainer (Cui Chaoming), who signifies the old order of master and servant to which this family belongs. Dai’s 16-year-old sister Xiu (Zhang Hongmei) lives with them. Fresh and without despair for her future, she’s the only breath of life around them.
Into this stagnated and blasted snapshot of the bourgeoisie comes an old friend who went away to Shanghai and became a doctor: Zhang Zhichen (Li Wei). He now belongs to the promising future of the New China, but he, too, is weighed by the past. Not only is Dai his old friend, but it turns out that he and Yuwen were in love when she was 16, and he never pursued it because her mother objected. Now his return opens old wounds and offers possibilities for fulfillment and tragedy.
Director Mu Fei avoids the potential for melodrama in this situation while seeming to consider it. “If only he dies,” says Yuwen impulsively of her invalid husband at one point, instantly shocked at her own thoughts. But this is neither Chinese noir nor a soap opera. These four people (the servant is incidental) offer a rich study of the most poignant branch of human emotions: how people cause each other pain through love.
Mu made this movie just as China recovered from its long war against Japan (known to westerners as WWII) and swung into its Communist revolution. The Japanese invasion and occupation had been a constant element in Shanghai’s film industry of the ‘30s and a rallying point for leftist filmmakers, but Mu aroused some condemnation (and departed for Hong Kong) because his film seems so insular and personal, so concerned with the individual, and relics of the class system at that.
Despite the title, there’s no sign of a small town or any other human society; these characters seem totally divorced from it, dwelling self-sufficiently among the ruins. Not another living soul is glimpsed, not even an extra wandering in the distance. They seem to live on an isolated planet in which the things of men have collapsed picturesquely, leaving only the beauty of nature.
Yet their personal history is firmly grounded in the national trauma. The ruins of their lives and decisions are literalised around them, and the movie implies that this shell-shocked transitional period of self-evaluation is what all of China is going through.
Although dialogue-driven, the film never feels static. The camera never stops moving but glides delicately, shyly, yet insistently. The scenes between the doctor and the wife are marvels of expressiveness from both camera and actors, wavering between flirtation, exhiliration, avoidance, restraint, pain, the whole ball of wax.
Their scenes employ a remarkable device similar to Jean-Luc Godard’s famous jump-cuts within scenes in Breathless (1959); there are dissolves within scenes. Without interrupting the dialogue, these seemingly gratuitous gestures emphasize how self-conscious the ex-lovers feel as well as conveying a sense of stasis and enervation in their talk, as though time is lapsing to no effect. Dissolves are employed again when they have a pivotal discussion outdoors; they are blocked in positions where they don’t face each other and the camera looks up at them against the sky, floating in space.
At one prominent point in their first dialogue, Fei Mu even breaks the 180 degree rule as the camera suddenly flips to the other side of the room. The characters’ positions in the frame are literally reversed and we now see the fourth wall that was invisible before. Since the actors must be on a set, this effect is the opposite of careless shooting / editing but requires careful setting up. Perhaps it shows the irreconcilibility of their positions, or perhaps their interchangeability.
The most privileged moments are the outdoors scenes of nature walks and a rowing party that, accompanied by Xiu’s singing, justify the overused term, ‘lyrical’. These show the possibilities of literal harmony among people, no matter the ironic tensions among them. As they walk, the camera follows ahead of them; as they row, the camera offers many gracious set-ups, evidently from a boat ahead or to the side.
Wei Wei not only gives a performance of expressiveness and delicacy as Yuwen, but the film belongs to her omnisciently. Her voice provides poetic narration in the present tense, and she uncannily knows what other characters are doing and saying without her presence. It’s as if she’s a ghost, disembodied from her self and floating restlessly through this world until she makes her final decision.
Narration is sometimes described as uncinematic, and certainly it can be as clumsy and redundant as any gestural cliche of “showing, not telling”, but the masters know that nothing is more inherently cinematic than the conjunction or disjunction of what we hear and see; written fiction can’t do this.
This film was remade in 2002 by Tian Zhuangzhuang, who hadn’t been able to make a film for 10 years because of official problems with his previous movie. Considering that the original’s reception in 1948 hurt the director’s career, this choice for remake seems carefully ironic. Both films are called Xiao cheng zhi chun, but the remake is known in the West as Springtime in a Small Town. Judging from the rapturous reviews it received, most critics either weren’t aware of the original or hadn’t seen it.
The sedate, quiet, sinuous long-take remake is very close, but the slight modifications the director says he made for modern audiences strike me as unbalancing the film. Sometimes he underlines the emotions in a vulgar way as the characters indulge in lugubrious displays. In the original, the tension between their restraint and their obvious boiling emotions was a source of poetry.
On the other hand, Zhuangzhuang shoots the outdoor scenes of walking and boating from a great distance, actually removing the viewer from the emotions. The most crucial difference is the absence of narration, which ironically makes the film stiffer and more arid. He also adds one scene with a classroom full of kids, which becomes a kind of comic break while destroying the original sense of isolation.
For the last several years, Spring in a Small Town has been available as an unsubtitled import from China, though someone thoughtfully posted an English translation of the dialogue on the internet. This DVD, one of Cinema Epoch’s “Chinese Film Classics Collection”, adds the subtitles to what may be the same ragged print. Similarly, the other entries in the series are in glorious unrestored fade-o-vision.
For example, there’s Weibang Maxu’s Song at Midnight (1937), nominally China’s first horror movie. The director wanted to make a Universal-type horror and refashioned Phantom of the Opera as the most potentially Chinese story. It’s expressionist as all get-out, with shadows, cobwebs, fog, dutch angles, and superimpositions of angry torch-wielding villagers. (This was remade as Ronny Yu’s The Phantom Lover in 1995.)
The dark, faded opening minutes are difficult to make out before it settles into a story of a disfigured opera singer who mentors a young man (not a woman, as in the traditional version) and then tells his own story in flashback. He had been a handsome star and political revolutionary (the two are blended somehow into one function) who got acid thrown in his face. This left him with a puss like a flat souffle and caused his girlfriend to go mad and start walking around in long white wraps staring into space when not laughing hysterically. The score uses Bach’s “Air on a G String”, Mussourgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain” and even a then-recent work, Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.
Another entry in the series is the 1927 rarity, Romance of the Western Chamber. This bad print may even be at the wrong speed, but through the ravages of time can be glimpsed signs of its graceful youth, including battle scenes that use superimposition to nifty effect.
Also releasing this summer is a two-part family epic from 1947, Spring River Flows East, which has often been described as China’s Gone with the Wind because of its length and blockbuster popularity. It focuses on one family during the conflict with Japan. The heroic husband loses his way amid comfortable capitalists and sinks into adultery, forgetting his long-suffering wife, son and mother. The final act is a series of over-the-top melodramatic developments that still can amaze the viewer.
Having China symbolized by a suffering wife or mother is a narrative convention that continued even into the early films of Zhang Yimou, with a young wife torn between an old traditional husband and a young lover, and Spring River Flows East codes the allegory in ideological line with China’s political winds. Spring in a Small Town, however, which can be seen as the story of a China frustrated by a dead end (the bourgeois husband) yet also blaming the new direction (young doctor) that failed to claim her and finally being resolved to her lot, was too ambiguous and compassionate to escape being labeled “rightist”.
As with Spring in a Small Town, the print of Spring River Flows East isn’t in such bad shape as the ‘30s films, but still—no TCM vault prints from the negative, no Criterion restorations. Perhaps this is unavoidable, and certainly it’s the only way to see these movies right now.