Spring in a Small Town has attained almost mythical status in the history of Chinese Cinema. It dates from the brief period between the end of the Sino-Japanese war and the final victory of the Chinese Communists and the foundation of the PRC. The studio Wenhua was a small company formed in 1946 but Fei Mu (1906-51) was an experienced Shanghai director who had made melodramas with the major star Ruan Lingyu in the early 1930s. He was also very interested in Peking opera and open to ideas from Western filmmaking. Production of Spring in a Small Town was possible only because Fei was prepared to work with a small budget and a limited cast of just five actors for only a few weeks during a forced break from his major production of the opera film Eternal Regret – China’s first colour film with the leading opera star Mei Linfang.
Fei was interested in the possibility of making a new kind of film based on a script by a 26 year-old writer Li Tianji. His approach was to attempt to find a way to balance realism and romanticism and to to do this by exploring aesthetic ideas. These are discussed in detail by David Der-wei Wang in a paper titled ‘A Spring That Brought Eternal Regret: Fei Mu, Mei Lanfang, and the Poetics of Screening China’ (2013). The film lasted only a few weeks in Shanghai cinemas. It was then suppressed by the PRC officials charged with overseeing Chinese cinema post-1949 and its reputation was only kept alive by some of those Shanghai filmmakers who migrated to Taiwan and Hong Kong. (Fei Mu himself went to Hong Kong, but died soon after arriving.) The film was also shown in Taiwan. The PRC officials condemned the film for ‘petty-bourgeois decadence’ and ‘ideologogical backwardness’ creating a ‘narcotic effect’ on audiences. (This para draws primarily on Chinese National Cinema by Yingjin Zhang, Routledge 2004). Spring in a Small Town was not properly seen again until the 1980s in China and has been unavailable in the UK for many years but has now been released in a restored version by the BFI. It is now hailed by Chinese critics as one of the greatest films in Shanghai cinema and indeed one of the best films in Chinese film history.
I was not disappointed when I finally saw this in the cinema. I’d only seen short extracts before, although I was familiar with the remake Springtime in a Small Town (2001) directed by the 5th Generation director Tian Zhuangzhuang. Ironically the remake marked Tian’s return to favour with the Chinese authorities after his earlier critical film The Blue Kite (1993). But although I was familiar with the outline story of Spring in a Small Town, I wasn’t really prepared for the treatment of the script or the intense emotional power of the film.
As I suggested in discussion of Ozu’s A Hen in the Wind, 1948 is a pivotal year in global cinema with many films set in the ‘rubble’ left by the preceding years of war. In that sense, Spring in a Small Town is related to Rossellini and De Sica’s work in Italy and to Ozu, Kurosawa and the other Japanese masters, even if none of the filmmakers were themselves aware of the similarities. It isn’t a neo-realist film as such, except in the sense of having little in the way of budget or indeed facilities – and therefore limited choices in terms of techniques. Fei Mu chose a distinctive approach with long takes and a panning, moving camera covering dialogue rather than cross-cutting. Each scene ends with a fade to black. The tension that the camerawork evokes is compounded by the approach to sound. I don’t know if this was intended or whether it is the result of restoration using damaged source materials but it appears that the sound has been post-synched. Apart from the dialogue, music/songs and certain sound effects, the film is silent – i.e. there is no ‘atmos’ or ambient sound and quite long periods without sound at all. Allied to this, there are lengthy narrated passages by the female lead.
The story is relatively simple. In 1946, after eight years of war and its immediate aftermath, a Shanghai doctor Zhang Zichen returns to his home town ‘somewhere in rural China’ (it was actually filmed in a town not that far from Shanghai) to visit his old friend Dai Liyan. He is taken aback to discover that his friend is ill with tuberculosis and heart disease and that he has been married for several years to Zhou Yuwen, who was once Zhang’s own love interest. The Dai family home, once wealthy, has been damaged by war and the one family servant left forlornly attempts to rebuild the garden walls. Liyan’s young sister, 16 year-old Xiu, is the one lively element in the household. (No other inhabitants of the town are seen but Yuwen frequently walks along the ruined walls of the town.) Zichen and Yuwen have an obvious erotic attraction and the narrative tension is built around developments which bring them together and then keep them apart. Liyan is energised – and disturbed – by his friend’s arrival and invites him to stay. He then has the idea that Zichen might marry Xiu.
The complex network of desire and fear creates the intensity of melodrama, but without the usual outlets of expressionist camerawork or musical score it is sometimes their absence that helps to create emotional power. One outlet for the usual excess of melodrama is costume and this is developed around the outfits designed for Yuwen, including an opulent cheongsam/qipao and an array of scarves and combs. I was amazed to see what looked like seamed stockings (several shots focus on her feet and ankles). By contrast, Xiu is mostly dressed simply. The effects of the costume are accentuated by lighting – candles being used when electricity in the town is cut off). There are at two songs in the film, both of which surprised me. One is a folk song that seems to reference a Kazakh man (which I could understand if the film was later than 1948, but perhaps Russian songs had already reached Shanghai in the 1930s and 1940s?). The other referred in some way to whips on the body (!) according to the subtitles. If memory serves it is the young sister who sings the songs (and dances on another occasion).
The romantic triangle has within it the seeds of potential tragedy but I won’t spoil the plot (the film is available on video in North America). Less clear-cut is the sense that the narrative also explores a metaphor about the state of China in 1948. Zichen tells Liyan that he has worked in many parts of the country during the war and now he is in Shanghai. He is always in Western dress while the other three (and the servant) are dressed traditionally. He is ‘modern China’ visiting the ruins in the countryside. By contrast Liyan has done nothing during the war except preside over the decline of his house and the household seems to exist out of time (and almost out of place). After 1948 the film gradually became the focus for a nostalgia about China especially for overseas Chinese. Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood For Love (HK 2000) with its passionate but repressed non-affair and Maggie Cheung’s breathtaking costumes strikes me as at least one film drawing on that nostalgia (Wong’s family had migrated from Shanghai soon after Spring in a Small Town was produced in Shanghai).
There are several academic essays on this iconic film. As well as Zhang and Wang discussed above Susan Daravala’s (2007) ‘The aesthetics and moral politics of Fei Mu’s Spring in a Small Town‘ in the Journal of Chinese Cinemas 1:3 offers several useful arguments. She argues that Fei’s approach aims to be:
the avoidance of the theatricality and suspense that made viewers concentrate on the narrative to find out what happened next. He wanted instead to engage them by putting the focus on psychological description, which would be more likely to produce a self-reflexive, thoughtful response in the audience . . .
Daravala also compares the film with David Lean and Noel Coward’s Brief Encounter (UK 1945), also a melodrama in which a married woman has an affair with a doctor that is not consummated but displays erotic tension. Both films have the voiceover of the woman.
After I finished writing this I read Noah Cowan’s essay on the film, ‘Love Among the Ruins’ in Sight and Sound, July 2014. It’s a useful summary of the various takes on Fei, his ideas and this specific film and might be the best piece to read first. There is certainly a wealth of scholarship to explore – more than I have briefly covered here. But you should watch the film first and be amazed.