English Title: Spring in a Small Town
Original Title: Xiao cheng zhi chun 小城之春
Genre: Drama, Romance
Director: Fei Mu 费穆
Writer: Li Tianji 李天济
Music: Huang Yijun 黄贻钧
Cinematography: Li Shengwei 李生伟
Wei Wei 韦伟
Li Wei 李纬
Shi Yu 石羽
Zhang Hongmei 张鸿眉
Cui Chaoming 崔超明
Unanimously hailed as the finest Chinese film ever made by critics, as a first-time viewer, expectation couldn’t be higher for Mu Fei’s SPRING IN A SMALL TOWN, made one year before the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. This early talkie actually is a tiny-scaled drama with a five-actors cast, and the main sets are a ruined family compound and a damaged rampart, with a short passage of a foursome boat pastime.
A dominant voiceover from Yuwen (Wei), a downcast housewife, runs through the entirety of the film, with clearly pronounced accent, it not just details her behaviours and inner thoughts, but also comments on other characters’ conducts as a meticulous guide for audience, for fear that we will overlook the precisely-enacted nuances which imbue the breath of life for its longevity. It is a repressed love-triangle, Yuwen marries Liyan (Shi) for eight years, he has been an invalid for the past six years, laments on his inability to revive his once-prosperous family after the Second Sino-Japanese War (ended in 1945), and harbours an intractable guilt towards Yuwen for not being a capable husband and wasting her youth in taking care of him.
One day, an unexpected visitor Zhichen (Li) arrives, he is Liyan’s childhood friend, now a doctor from Shanghai, whom Liyan haven’t met for a decade. And an awkward revelation is that Zhichen is also Yuwen’s old flame, who leaves her 10 years ago to join the army, which is unbeknown to Liyan. So, inevitably, life gives Yuwen a second chance since obviously she and Zhichen are still having fervent feelings towards each other, but what about Liyan, who now becomes the only barrier between them. Up to this stage, the central narrative has been superbly weaved into a gripping ethical conundrum. On paper, Liyan’s poor health condition makes him an easy prey to be dispatched, but in reality, people have concerns about their integrity, both Yuwen and Zhichen are far from evil-doers like those in THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE (1946) and Ossessione (1943), their passion is shackled by moral obligations. On the night of Zhichen’s young sister Xiu’s (Zhang) sixteenth birthday, boosted by booze and the festive mood, it grows to be a sleepless night for all three of them. Here Li Tianji’s intelligible script sets up a brilliant plot device, the sleeping pills, Zhichen changes the pills, to pre-empt Wuwen’s idea of suicide, but in the twist of fate, this action ultimately saves Liyan’s life, restores the status quo, an anti-climatic master stroke, imagine if he hadn’t changed it, he and Yuwen might still have a chance to be together although they have to abide by the guilt from then on.
As an austere chamber drama, the acting betrays its time, methodical, a tad formulaic and melodramatic, but fortunately pertinent to the slow-burning pace of the narrative, dialogues are terse but there is the torrid undercurrent seething with the unspeakable emotions – desire, regret, loneliness, guilt, dissatisfaction and a glimpse of hope in the end. The three leads invoke a magnetic tug-of-war, typifies the national ethos of restraint and skepticism embedded deeply among Chinese people at that time.
In retrospect, it is understandable that the film was overlooked during its release, its suppressed tenor was ill at ease with the national spirit of its time, when the poverty-and-warfare-afflicted mass was eagerly anticipating the birth of a new country, that’s why there are so many hidden gems all around the world need rediscovery, alas the DVD version I watched is barely serviceable, the audio track is patchily impaired, a further restoration is indeed pressing.