Spring In A Small Town (Xiao cheng zhi chun)
China (1948) Dir. Mu Fei
Having been introduced to Chinese cinema via Bruce Lee’s martial arts classics I am rather ignorant towards the films made before 1971! Unfortunately many early Chinese films were essentially banished into the ether by the Communist regime, but thanks to BFI, a restored version of what is considered one of China’s finest films, Mu Fei’s Spring In A Small Town, allows me to rectify that ignorance.
Set after the Sino-Japanese war this well-mannered domestic drama revolves around the threat of upheaval that not one but two potential love triangles brings to the one prosperous Dai family. With no money to repair his war-ravaged home, Dai Liyan (Shi Yu) spends his days sitting amongst the rubble and reminiscing of old times. Because of his ill health and depression, his marriage to wife Zhou Yuwen (Wei Wei) has fallen apart and while they remain civil they live and sleep in different parts of the house.
Caught somewhere in the middle are Liyan’s fifteen year-old sister Dai Xiu (Zhang Hongmei) and faithful servant Lao Huang (Cui Chaoming) until an old doctor friend of Liyan’s who he hasn’t seen since before the war, Zhang Zhichen (Li Wei) arrives from Shanghai. Zhang’s presence lifts the spirits of the household, with Xiu developing a crush on him but both she and Liyan are unaware that Zhang and Yuwen are former lovers, and they seem keen to reignite this dormant flame between them.
Amazingly this film was rejected by the Communist regime when it took control in 1949, for not having any political substance and was dismissed as “reactionary”. Thankfully by the 1980’s the Chinese Film Archive showed greater leniency and made a new print and the film was revived to a new and wider audience.
It’s based on a short story by Li Tianji and while not a direct comparison, there is a faint whiff of the gentle, homely observational style of Japan’s Yasujiro Ozu in Mu Fei’s presentation – the small family unit, the single property setting and mild paced story telling. On the other hand, the politeness and convivial manner in which the characters interact with each other is reminiscent of the British classic Brief Encounter, arguably the most polite affair ever committed to celluloid.
Narrated by Yuwen, she is demonstrably unhappy as she makes her daily journey into town for some meagre groceries and her husband’s medicine which Liyan stubbornly accepts. While there is no notable animus between them there is no affection present either. Xiu on the other hand is a totem of effervescence and lifts both their spirits while remaining somewhat naive to the extent of the split between them.
Oblivious to the past Yuwen and Zhang shared Liyan encourage his old friend to stick around, his ailing health being a convenient incentive, and, with her sixteenth birthday imminent, suggest that maybe Xiu would be an ideal bride for Zhang, in a couple of years time of course. Yuwnen doesn’t discount the idea but she is less than effusive in supporting it, which Liyan doesn’t pick up on but Xiu is more perceptive at her sixteenth birthday dinner when the drink flows and facades begin to slip.
Mu Fei refrains from turning this into a steamy bodice ripping melodrama – not that Chinese censors would have allowed him to anyway – leaving him to rely on subtleties to depict the growing fondness between Yuwen and Zhang. A key example comes following a trip to a crumbling wall overlooking the city, (a recurring theme of the film) – Fei holds the camera still and lets them wander into the distance, gradually edging closer to each other, then holding hands before Yuwen breaks away and runs off.
It is quite remarkable how Fei, and the cast, are able to build up such incredible sexual tension without any close physical interaction whatsoever between those involved. It is equally astounding since the attire worn is very conservative and not a sight if bare flesh aside from hands and face are ever seen from anyone, yet there is a palpable sensuality exuding from the body language alone.
Zhang insists that Yuwen don’t see each without Liyan knowing (so they should have the affair in front of him?) but Yuwen ignores him and continues to pay him visits at night. She flutters around him coquettishly, hiding her face behind a silk scarf, allowing the glint in her eyes to do the talking. It may not sound erotic but it is a rather graceful form of flirting which threatens to weaken Zhang’s resolve and puts further pressure on the dynamic of the four principals before a tragic turn of events changes everything.
If anything exposes this as film of its time it is the acting. That isn’t to say anybody did a bad job as they all played their roles marvellously, but the direction is very stagey and stilted. Whenever things gets tense between Yuwen and either Zhang or Liyan, they suddenly adopt that strict “eyes, front, body straight, her leaning into him” pose, while the lines are delivered in that Ozu-esque pattern of everyone waiting for their turn to speak.
But they all define their characters well and convey the requisite emotional and personal feelings and there is a real mastery in how they were able to tell such a compelling story through nuanced performances. Arguably the most impressive is Wei Wei, who is still going at 92 years-old, turning Yuwen from a frosty, disheartened woman into a subtle but seductive vamp without us even knowing it!
Thanks to the Communists, Mu Fei’s career effectively ended with Spring In A Small Town, passing away three years later aged just 44. However it is fair to say that he went out on a high with this simple but engaging film that retains its humble charm after all these years in the wilderness.