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Spring in a Small Town

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    Spring in a Small Town is that great rarity – an almost lost masterpiece from China which is now released in cinemas – I was lucky enough to see it on the big screen today. It was made in 1948, and was remade a few years ago, but its been unobtainable in anything but pirate VHS form until recently. The BFI have remastered it and it seems to be quite widely available now on digital screens. I’d recommend anyone with an interest in Asian cinema to go see it – it really is a superb film, with some justification its been described as the greatest of all Chinese films. I’ve posted this here as I think its very relevant to our discussions of Japanese film from the post war period – its nice to see a little context from other examples of Asian cinema. It has been described as Mizoguchi-like, but I think there are also strong echoes in Ozu and indeed, in Kurosawa’s films from the time. It is from the same time more or less as No Regrets for our Youth and Late Spring and there are clear thematic similarities. The film was made by a film maker called Fu Mei, who sadly died shortly after this was made, at a very young age.

    The story concerns a love triangle between the narrator, the wife (Yuwen) of an ailing last survivor (Liyan) from a wealthy house in the immediate aftermath of war and an old flame (Zhichen). Liyan thinks he is suffering from TB, but its pretty obvious that he is simply deeply melancholic. He spends his days sitting in the ruins of what was once a beautiful compound complex, in a ruined town. Yuwen dutifully looks after his needs, but is clearly desperately lonely and has completely withdrawn from him emotionally. They have just one servant, and live with his cheerful younger sister. When his best friend from childhood, a westernised doctor (Zhichen) arrives for a visit, Liyan perks up, as does Yuwen – he is unaware that the two were lovers before they married. The film is essentially a drama of sexual tension as they agonise over what to do (Liyan and his sister gradually become aware of what is going on). The film is a very obvious metaphor for China’s post war situation – with Yuwen caught between the old ways of duty and a disruptive future (the film was hated equally by the communists and by the nationalists, so the metaphor obviously worked). This is emphasised at the beginning, where the characters are introduced as ‘types’. The whole narrative is very beautiful, with a powerful erotic undertone (Wei Wei, the lead actress, is quite magnificent). The influence of the film on later Chinese film, especially early Zhang Yimou, and films like In the Mood for Love is very obvious.

    I mention Ozu, because one of the striking things about the film is how frequently Mu Fei happily breaks the normal ‘rules’ of film making. In several scenes our view shifts 360 degrees around the characters – sometimes the edits in scenes partially overlap. The sound is also very interesting – the characters describe loud sounds we don’t hear – in places the film goes entirely silent (at first I thought this was a technical problem, but it became clear after a while it was deliberate). Just as with Ozu when he plays with unorthodox angles and edits the effect is both jarring and very effective. At other times, the camerawork is beautiful and flowing, very reminiscent of Mizoguchi. The story, despite the heavy metaphor, is very well balanced, with strong actors and no obvious directorial bias towards particular characters. The ending is beautifully ambiguous.

    It does show of course that Japan was by no means unique in having a very technically strong film industry in that period. This film is every bit as good as the classics from Japan (or indeed Europe or the US) in the post war period. The sad thing though is that the Revolution did so much damage that China didn’t have the chance to develop a good cinema until decades after. Its not just the death of Fu Mei which was a loss – a glance at imdb for the actors shows that they didn’t have much of a career for decades, I can only guess what they did during the 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s. Interestingly, Wei Wei seems very busy in her 90’s, she is recently very active and starring in a number of films – I’d love to see what she is like as an actress now!



    Sounds really interesting, thanks for the heads up!

    Hopefully the new restoration will find its way on DVD as well. The film seems to be available for paid streaming through BFI’s BFI Player, but only for UK residents, as far as I can see.

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