Sunday Editor’s Pick: Spring in a Small Town (1948)

by on September 11, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Fri Sept 16 at 7:15, Sat Sept 17 at 2:00, and Sun Sept 18 at 6:10 at Film Society of Lincoln Center [Program & Tix]


Next weekend, Fri Sept 16 thru Sat Sept 17, Film Society celebrates “Fei Mu: An Undiscovered Master.” With the help of the China Film Archive, they will present five rare prints. This, his love triangle melodrama is “considered by many critics to be the finest Chinese film made before the modern era” according to the program notes. Jonathan Rosenbaum, who includes it in his Alternative Top 100 Films, identifies it as “a key inspiration for Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love” and Wong himself has listed it as one of the greatest movies ever made.


Andrew Chan for The House Next Door:

Fei’s film, which is a faithful rendition of a short story by Li Tianji, subtly places itself in the context of literary tradition; the classical “zhi” in its Chinese title (Xiao cheng zhi chun) evokes a creative history the Cultural Revolution sought to destroy and contrasts with the unifying vernacular Communism promoted. All of the film’s five characters are introduced with a subtitle upon their first appearance, giving the opening scenes the feeling of theater. As is fitting for a film so concerned with the time warp between one era and the next, Fei matches these traditional appearances with modernist techniques. Like Brief Encounter, Spring is narrated by an unhappily married woman on the verge of infidelity. Her wandering, whispery voiceover splits the film into multiple layers: we can hear the wife’s emotions as we see how she tries to suppress them; we witness the present tense turning into the past as her storytelling accompanies the action taking place; and we watch a paradox develop as the narration peters out and our heroine becomes an enigma clouded by coyness and unarticulated desire, a supporting player in her own life. The film is stunning when it lingers quietly on images of her desperation, which often seems not for a person but for all the time—both past and future—she feels is permanently lost to her.


The film’s central love triangle forms when a man she fell in love with years ago stumbles into her courtyard, and she discovers that he was a close friend of her husband. War has dispersed them, and while the friend has become a successful doctor in Shanghai, the woman has been acting as a nurse to her sickly husband, trapped in an inherited home whose attractive interiors remain remarkably preserved amid ruins. The tantalizing suggestion of future possibilities manifests everywhere: in the repeated success the wife and friend have in finding time alone together; in the sympathy with which the husband asks about the nature of their relationship; in the woman’s perky teenage sister-in-law, who becomes a symbol of unfettered youth. But with characters who turn out to be so self-sacrificing, so tangled in their loyalties to past ideals, romance cannot take precedence over family responsibility. Lapses into betrayal are short-lived, and as the insular setting becomes more and more claustrophobic (even the exteriors are locked in by a wall that surrounds the town and obstructs our view of the outside world), the would-be lovers resign themselves to a philosophy of artful passivity, according to which all their bottled-up romantic and erotic disappointments will constitute the poetic core of their lives. In the film’s final shot, the woman stands resolutely beneath an overwhelming stretch of sky, having rejected the love of her choice to stand by the commitments and little kindnesses of her arranged marriage.



Chan continues:

Fei’s film remains a revelation, moving and memorable for its exploration of film vocabulary. The lyricism of its compositions, the languorous pacing of its seasonal story, and the startling flickers of feeling we get from Wei Wei in the lead role gain even greater significance when viewed in conversation with Tian’s lesser [re-make] Springtime in a Small Town.


From the blog Critic After Dark:

Fei’s classic is a haunted film, full of moons framed by drifting clouds, strange slow dissolves within the scene (what, you wonder, do the dissolves mean and why at that particular moment?) and sad, silent rooms drenched in wordless mystery. The camera often moves in on characters to break up the often flat-looking black-and-white imagery. It attempts to bring the imagery to life, so to speak, by giving depth to empty space, solidity and thickness to objects and people.


Perhaps the single most overwhelming impression one has coming away from a viewing is of a hypnotically leisurely pace. Fei almost always dissolves to the next scene (and as mentioned, will sometimes dissolve in the middle of the scene, for no apparent reason), he will hold a shot for as long as the character within the shot needs to finish his or her errand or bit of business. This languorous rhythm has the effect of heightening the realism (one thinks of the celebrated kitchen scene in Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons, made six years earlier–strange, but that film seems so much more immediate and modern (despite its turn of the century setting) than this, Fei’s masterpiece) and intensifying the eroticism (the often silent, often wordless meetings between Yuwen and Zhiyang have the breathless impact of outright sex in today’s more explicit (unfortunately, in my opinion) age). When Zhiyang suddenly seizes a wounded hand and presses it to his lips, the act has the effect of curling one’s startled toes.



J. Hoberman compares the film to the 2005 remake for the Village Voice:

A chamber piece with a rubble-strewn location as aggressively “placeless” as the set for a Beckett play, Spring is revelatory in a number of ways—not least in demonstrating how Tian exquisitely refracted a stark contemporary drama through the prism of a double nostalgia. Increasingly claustrophobic and shadowy, Fei’s film is stranger, starker, and less subtle than Tian’s remake—closer in mood to Strindberg than Chekhov. Where the remake is deliberately distancing, the original uses a voiceover to cut in and out of the frustrated heroine’s bleak consciousness. “I simply don’t know how to live in the future,” she muses at one point. Trapped in an unsatisfying feudal marriage (to the dying past), she is drawn to the ruined city wall, in part because it crystallizes her feelings of hopelessness.


Communist commentators criticized Fei’s ideological “backwardness” and “narcotic effect”—not realizing, as Tian evidently would, the painful irony of Fei’s title and how perfectly his movie embodied the moment of its making.


Leo Goldsmith, in his screening log for Not Coming to a Theater Near You:

An achingly gorgeous film that was voted (with good reason) the best Chinese-language film of all time by the Hong Kong Film Academy. The beautifully spare, spectral imagery, the slow, delicate camera movement, and the ghostly, almost whispered voiceover lend a seductive, melancholy rhythm to a drama that plays out almost entirely with the characters’ hands.


Tony Rayns for Time Out (London):

The crowning achievement of one of China’s finest directors, this unique film both reflects and dissects the mood of helpless impotence which afflicted many Chinese in the years after the war. After a 10-year absence, a doctor visits a married couple living in a bomb-scarred country town. The husband is a broken man, close to suicide; the wife was once his lover and they start to drift back into an affair under the nose of her husband. The sense of frustration and enervation is palpable, underlined by Fei’s brilliant idea to use dissolves within scenes, but the counter-current of renascent desire (sparked by Wei Wei’s phenomenal performance as the wife) makes this also a very sensual movie.



Tim Brayton for Antagony & Ecstasy:

Spring in a Small Town is a revelation to those of us accustomed to thinking that Chinese film as an art form began with Chen Kaige. Simply put, it is one of the most delicate, subtly moving stories of domestic suffering that has ever been put to film, starting at its across-the-board wonderful set of performances to its imagery, a tableau of life flickering around the edges of decay and rubble (the spring promised in the title is altogether ironic).


Beyond that, Fei’s command of cinema is exemplary, and it strikes me as a tragedy that he produced so few films (none of which are available in the US besides this one, if indeed any of them survive). Ironically, his style seems almost a combination of two of the greatest Japanese filmmakers: he brings together Mizoguchi’s fluid camera movements with Ozu’s genius for space within the frame. The camera always moves in lines that are dictated by the geometry of the place where the scene is set, and the way those settings are shot usually emphasizes their edges, such the characters are perpetually hemmed in and herded into ever-collapsing boxes. When someone bursts in from off-camera, it’s shocking: everything else in the film is focused on denying the existence of off-camera space.


Visually, then Spring in a Small Town is concerned mainly with the creation of existential panic: what you see is all there is, which obviously ties in nicely with the concerns of the protagonist. It is not a pleasant film – everyone in the story suffers to some degree or another and nobody is antagonistic or a villain; if there is an enemy in the film, that enemy is The Way The World Works, Circa 1948. It is suffocating, and Fei makes the audience suffocate along with the characters through his ominous mise en scène: this makes the few moments when the narrative or the visuals open up all the sweeter. Not for everyone, certainly, but it is quiet and beautiful for those with a little patience and the will to put themselves into a place that most Westerners, for a start, probably haven’t every really thought about before.



Michael Barrett for Pop Matters:

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.


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