#127 (tie) – Spring in a Small Town (1948), dir. Fei Mu

Spring in a Small Town (1948)

A house divided. A woman prepares medicine for her husband while trying to ignore the stares of her former lover in director Fei Mu’s tense domestic drama Spring in a Small Town.

We’ve been stuck here of late at FWAMY. So far we’ve yammered about 73 Sight & Sound list films, all of which come from just eight countries. So it is very nice to welcome a new nation to the fold: China. Spring in a Small Town (Xiǎochéng zhī chūn, 1948) was filmed in the short window between the end of World War II and the beginning of communist rule in China in 1949. As such it captures a very unique — if very brief — chapter of China’s history, and offers insight into what the country thought of itself before Chairman Mao. But the epic turbulence of this period is kept well to the background in Spring in a Small Town, which is a domestic melodrama that contains a grand total of five characters. An ailing man lives in the ruins of his family’s mansion with his wife, sister and a servant. One day the man is visited by a friend — a friend who used to be romantically attached to the sick man’s wife. It is a simple set up, but evocatively constructed to be a slow burn of passion versus duty; romance versus friendship. And while set in a society that lasted all of a few years, the beautifully shot Spring in a Small Town reaches for something universal and timeless. (98 min.)

S. – I was really curious to see a list-worthy Chinese film and was glad for the opportunity to break away from the cabal of movie-making countries that have had a stranglehold on the list so far. Spring in a Small Town delivered a sophisticated and thoughtful take on a love triangle, in a format that felt surprisingly conventional. The inertia encompassing the central couple Yuwen (Wei Wei) and her ill husband Liyan (Shi Yu) is evidenced by their careful and awkward movements around one another, making the actions of their servant (Cui Chaoming) and Liyan’s younger sister Xiu (Zhang Hongmei) seem almost hyperactive in comparison. There are some fantastically staged shots that deftly communicate the atmosphere of despair, without any sound we are shown a large hole in the damaged outer wall framing the despondent Liyan sitting in a garden strewn with rubble. The downcast eyes of Yuwen in her husband’s presence paired with the camera staying quite low during these interactions generates a claustrophobia betraying the trapped feeling that simmers just below the surface of the obedient Yuwen. The sparse action and small amount of dialogue may seem like tough viewing, however, it is supplemented by narration that works very effectively to draw you in.

J. – I’m not sure I agree with the notion that the film is conventional — and I’m sure we’ll get back to that — but I would agree that it certainly isn’t alien in feel at all. Indeed, Spring in a Small Town is shockingly Western, which might account for it seeming so familiar. There certainly is a language of cinema that has become somewhat universal, but I feel like you often get strong accents that are culturally specific. However, Spring in a Small Town is strangely, well, “un-Chinese”. The score is Western (it doesn’t use Asian scales), the relationship dynamics are catholic in their applicability, and the characters themselves are surprisingly Westernized. For a moment I found this disappointing — I think I was hoping for something supremely different, but it occurred to me that we were witnessing a remarkable period in China’s development on the global scene before the Communist Revolution cut them off from the rest of the world.

But that aside, I agree with what you’ve said about the four characters already living in the ruined compound. The film does an excellent job of communicating the personalities and internal conflicts of these individuals before the surprise visitor shows up. The narration is a strange feature of this film (which I think points to its unconventional nature). There have been a few moments in our yammers where we have criticized a film for being too declarative in its intentions, basically committing the sin of telling instead of showing. Narration is usually the purest, most lazy form of this sin — a way of glossing over poor storytelling by dumping exposition through an omniscience voice. But Spring in a Small Town does a rather excellent job of communicating its messages and sculpting its characters through purely visual means — indeed it’s not that uncommon for scenes to be entirely silent. So the narration, which is performed by Yuwen (the wife), exists on some extra plane and has a certain otherworldly terseness to it. Her narration is more about emotional intensity and her internal confusion and torment than it is exposition. Consequently the narration is surprisingly effective and subverts the expectations of a narrator while adding emotional heft to the film. I’m sure we will get back to the performance of Wei Wei in the role of the wife, but I first wanted to get your take on the visuals of the film, S.

Spring in a Small Town 3

The film makes great use of light and shadow throughout, taking advantage of Yuwen’s short trysts with Zhang to construct night scenes of emotional weight and power.

S. – I found the tighter visuals shot in the domestic setting to be very compelling, beautifully composed with a sense of being so careful and precise in this fraught atmosphere. There was a very deliberate visual balance to the way a shot was composed that fed into the personal dynamics of the players on screen. A feature that stood out to me was the use of low camera angles, I was put much in mind of the Ozu films we have watched, although in Ozu’s movies there is usually someone at eye level seated on the floor. In this situation it gave the characters a looming quality, as they they were out of proportion with the surroundings, adding to the emotional intensity of a scene. By contrast the broad vista provided by the city wall, which served as a symbol of the gateway to freedom throughout the film, was less visually appealing and while this alternate location served the story well I didn’t find the visual component of these scenes very interesting. As a caveat I should add that the print of this film we watched was in quite bad shape and it is possible that the many bumps and scrapes on the film were harder on the outdoor action. On the whole I felt the visual element was solid but not the major strength of the film, how did it stack up for you J?

Spring in a Small Town 5

The ruins of the old house were a compelling way of marking the devastation of China’s recent past and to highlight the differences between those who still mourn what is lost and those who look to the future. China’s future is put forward in the form of the litter sister, Xiu, who in this shot is framed by the destruction of her ancestral home but remains unconcerned about the loss. The movie excels on a visual level inside the family compound.

J. – I agree with you wholeheartedly with regard to the shots inside the compound. The shots weren’t just carefully composed to illustrate character interaction and dynamics; they were often augmented by a camera that moved to accentuate character traits. I think of an early scene where Liyan is talking to his wife, but even though he is the one speaking, the camera slides past him to stay with Yuwen — diminishing the husband just as his character has been diminished by disease and despondency. The shots in the ruined garden were particularly effective at communicating the roles of the characters, be it Liyan’s intense focus on the past or the way that his sister appeared to be blithely oblivious of the ruins — a young woman who’s sense of self isn’t tied to past greatness she can’t really remember. But I think you are selling the shots along the wall short. To my mind the wall is not the gate to freedom but rather the barrier that demarcates the limits of Yuwen’s world — a world she wishes to escape but either through fear or a sense of duty she cannot. It’s not the most subtle of metaphors, but I find it an appealing one. And while you perhaps lose the dynamic lighting of many of the interior scenes, the wall itself is an appealing visual element, particularly in shots where characters are kept at a distance. I also like how many of the closer shots use that low framing that you mentioned, making characters giants against the blank canvas of the sky (and reminding me quite strongly of the silent Earth and the hilltop scenes from A Canterbury Tale). The wall represents an elusive freedom, and the visuals nailed that by alternately making the characters swell and diminish in the wall’s presence.

So I believe it is clear that I actually find the visuals to be one of the strongest elements of the film — indeed, probably its strongest outside of the delicate pacing, the film’s willful ambiguity, and the performance of Wei Wei. I think it is fair to say that some of the performances in the film are just, well, adequate. There is something stilted and stagy about the servant and the little sister — the latter of whom is often so broad that her performance seems more appropriate for a silent film. (Luckily that works alright in the context of the movie, but it certainly lacks nuance in a film that thrives on little moments and minute gestures.) But the trio of actors at the heart of the movie are a different story — so perhaps its time we leave the setup and dive into the trio of performances that really dominate Spring in a Small Town.

Spring in a Small Town

This may not be the most compelling shot up near the wall, but it is basically the film in miniature, with Yuwen and Zhang daring a moment of connection under the noses of Liyan and his sister. It also shows the poor condition that available prints of this film are in.

S. – It is the interaction between the three central characters that are the highlight of the film for me. From the moment Zhang (Wei Li) forces his way into the compound (after his knocking at the front gate goes unnoticed) the lure of possibility awakens in both Liyan and Yuwen. The young doctor in his Western dress breaks the oppressive spell of the past that has paralysed Liyan and fans the desire in Yuwen for a more fulfilling life. The outsider is a reminder of brighter days to both husband and wife and his presence becomes a much needed catalyst for change.  The performance of Wei Wei is wonderful, from the subjugated housewife the sparks of personality begin to shine out. While still largely governed by restraint her internal emotions find outlets in brief acts of daring that flirt with danger and are mesmerising to watch. The sparse grabs of narration in Yuwen’s voice add to the drama without telling the viewer how to feel. The narration lets us deeper inside her point of view than we get from the other protagonists but by stopping short of clarity there is still the sense that anything could happen. Yuwen’s potential energy seems to scare the men around her, both of whom want her yet are not quite brave enough to completely open that door. The scene where she is playing a drinking game with Zhang as Liyan watches on as though seeing her for the first time is outstanding. You glimpse the complexity of the emotions that comprise an intimate relationship without being told exactly what the resolution will be. The ambiguity is a triumph and gives Spring in a Small Town a depth that has left a strong impression on me long after the story ended.

Spring in a Small Town 3

Yu Shi’s performance as Liyan isn’t quite as strong as that of Wei Wei or Wei Li, but he raises his game for the drinking game scene — perhaps the pivotal moment in the film. Here a wave of realization comes over him as he watches his wife and friend play a drinking game together. It’s a powerful moment in a wonderfully played scene.

J. – And here’s where we get back to that notion of it not being a conventional story. The level of restraint is unusual in itself (although that is a more common aspect of East Asian cinema), but I think what makes this story of doomed love so interesting is the interplay between these three characters. The husband isn’t really jealous so much as eager for his wife to leave him — not because he doesn’t love her, but because he feels that he is little more than a burden to her. And while Zhang and Yuwen clearly love each other, their flirting isn’t particularly lovey-dovey or even coy — it’s downright aggressive in a way that seems calculated to alienate each other as much as it does to draw them closer together. It’s a compelling dance to witness, particularly through the performance of Wei Wei, who is so raw compared to the men in the story. It really is a masterclass in repressed vitriol — anger at her past, present and future. Wei Li and Shi Yu give fine performances as Zhang and Liyan, respectively, with each getting a least a few moments to shine. But there is sometimes a touch of soap opera to their work, which I don’t think is actually their fault so much as what you get when you compare their performances to that of Wei Wei. The film is always at its best in scenes in which she is the driver of the action, such as the drinking game scene, which is one of finest sequences I’ve seen in any film.

And I feel like the resolution of the film is as ambiguous as all that has come before it — although I know you saw it as a real new beginning for Liyan and Yuwen, S. — and I like that the movie didn’t settle in for a pat ending. The complications remain. And that may partially explain why this film has persisted in my mind since we watched it a few days ago. I walked away from our viewing feeling like I had just seen a very good movie, but my esteem for it has grown as I have thought about it more. There is so much to tease apart that is not readily apparent as it flashes on the screen, and really what more can you ask of a film than for it to continue challenging you after it has ended. Well, I can think of one thing: a restoration — somebody really needs to get on that right away, because Spring in a Small Town deserves to be seen in its full glory.

Related yammers:
#154 – Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948), dir. Max Ophüls
#90 – Partie de Campagne (1936), dir. Jean Renoir
#15 – Late Spring (1949), dir. Ozu Yasujiro
#183 – Story of the Last Chrysanthemums (1939), dir. Mizoguchi Kenji
#183 – Day of Wrath (1943), dir. Carl Th. Dreyer
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