Xiao cheng zhi chun (1948)
Directed by Fei Mu
Wenhua Film Company
Like every good story about a love triangle, Fei Mu’s Spring in a Small Town is more about desperate longing and the subterranean passions that threaten social order than it is about the tawdry mechanics of infidelity.
Based on a short story by Li Tianji, Spring in a Small Town stars Wei Wei as Zhou Yuwen, a 26-year-old woman living in the ruins of post-war China. Her husband, Dai Liyan (Shi Yu), comes from a family that was once prosperous, but is now penniless. Parts of their home are uninhabitable following the ravages of war, and Liyan is stricken with a vague but consuming ailment. Their marriage is passionless. Yuwen performs her wifely duties — shopping for groceries, giving her husband his medicine — but they barely speak to each other and do not sleep in the same bed. They share their house with the elderly servant Lao Huang (Cui Chaoming) and Liyan’s teenaged sister, Dai Xiu (Zhang Hongmei).
One day, the couple’s childhood friend Zhang Zhichen (Li Wei) appears at their home in a brazen but friendly manner. He has been gone for the past 10 years, and is now a well-traveled doctor. He brings joy to all the members of the household, although Lao Huang, the servant, is mystified by his nontraditional habits (he doesn’t drink tea, and he doesn’t wash before going to bed; not even his face).
But before long, Liyan can’t help noticing that his wife is happier around Zhichen than she has been in years. And Yuwen herself is torn between loyalty to her husband and the happiness and passion that Zhichen could offer her.
After the Chinese Communists declared victory in 1949, this film was rejected because of its apolitical story, but its reputation has grown since the China Film Archive struck a new print in the early 1980s. In 2002, Zhuangzhuang Tian produced a remake, called Springtime in a Small Town, and in 2005, the Hong Kong Film Awards Association named the original Spring in a Small Town the greatest Chinese-language film of all time.
It’s an intimate film without a lot of overt symbolism, but it’s hard not to notice that the members of the Dai household wear more traditional clothing than Zhang Zhichen, who wears a western suit and tie, as well as a wristwatch. He is modernity incarnate, and full of life and promise, while Yuwen’s husband is a moribund symbol of the past.
Spring in a Small Town is a simple but elegant and affecting film. I especially liked Wei Wei’s dreamlike voiceover narration.
Unfortunately, I felt as if I wasn’t able to completely appreciate the film because the print I watched was lousy. The only version of the film currently available in the United States on DVD is from Cinema Epoch, and it’s plagued with problems. (It appears to be the source for the complete version of the film uploaded to YouTube that I’ve linked to below). The picture is softly focused, there are missing frames, there’s a constant background hiss on the soundtrack, some of the cuts seem jumpy, and the subtitles are poorly timed. I was still able to enjoy the film, but when you compare this DVD with the presentation of films from the same period by the great Japanese director Yasujirô Ozu that the Criterion Collection has put out on DVD and Blu-ray, well … there’s no comparison. Spring in a Small Town is a great film, and it deserves a better presentation than this.