Spring in a Small Town
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|Spring in a Small Town|
|Mandarin||Xiǎochéng zhī chūn|
|Directed by||Fei Mu|
|Written by||Li Tianji|
|Music by||Huang Yijun|
|Edited by||Wei Chunbao|
|Distributed by||United States (DVD):|
Spring in a Small Town is a black-and-white Chinese film released in 1948, written by Li Tianji (Chinese: 李天濟; pinyin: Lǐ Tiānjì) and directed by Fei Mu, a director known for his empathetic portrayal of women. It was produced and funded by Wenhua Film Company, whose great financial deficit at the time led it to produce Spring in a Small Town on a low budget with a minimalist plot and setting. The film casted only five characters.
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The film takes place in a ruined family compound in a small town in the Jiangnan region after the Sino-Japanese War, and it tells the story of the once-prosperous Dai family. The film opens with Yuwen (Wei Wei) walking alone along with the ruins of the city wall, narrating the slow-paced, circular nature of her life. Her husband Liyan (Shi Yu) is ill and wallows in the miserable reality of his family's loss. Due to his illness and depression, his marriage to Yuwen has long been loveless, though both remain dutiful spouses to each other. Liyan spends his days in the courtyard expressing nostalgia of a better time. Meanwhile, Liyan's young teenage sister Xiu (Zhang Hongmei), too young to remember the past, stays cheerful and playful in the ruins of their home. Lao Huang (Cui Chaoming) is an old servant of the Dai family who faithfully remains with the family.
The Dai family still manages to live in an uneventful peace, but this is suddenly challenged by an unexpected visit from Liyan's childhood friend Zhang Zhichen (Li Wei), a doctor from Shanghai who previously had a relationship with Yuwen. Yuwen is conflicted between her love for Zhichen and her loyalty to her husband. During Zhichen's first evening at the home, Yuwen rekindles their love, visiting him and sending him some bedding and a thermos to show her concern. The next day, Liyan, Yuwen, Zhichen and Xiu spend the day together boating.
Liyan and Zhichen talk later in the day and Liyan expresses love for his wife but feels unworthy of her. Liyan suggests that things would be better if Yuwen married Zhichen, making Zhichen feel guilty. Xiu, having just turned sixteen years old, develops romantic feelings for Zhichen, who himself is conflicted between his love for Yuwen and his loyalty to his Liyan. As the film progresses, Liyan and Xiu begin to suspect that Zhichen and Yuwen have strong feelings for one another.
One night, Zhichen, Liyan, Yuwen, and Xiu drink and play games together. Liyan notices happiness in Yuwen that he has not seen in a while, but it is only because of her interaction with Zhichen. In a conversation with Yuwen shortly after, Liyan expresses his shame for being an inadequate husband, and he wishes out loud that Yuwen had married Zhichen instead. As Yuwen and Zhichen struggle between overcoming or succumbing to their passion for each other, Liyan attempts suicide by taking an excessive amount of hypnotic drugs. However, he is resuscitated by Zhichen. After Liyan's attempted suicide, Yuwen begins to repair her relationship with Liyan. Both Yuwen and Zhichen decide not to rekindle their past relationship. As Zhichen departs, Huang and Xiu walk him to the train station. Zhichen makes a promise to return in a year. Yuwen, watching from the wall, is joined by Liyan as Zhichen departs.
Spring In A Small Town takes place in the aftermath of the Second Sino-Japanese War. During the war, the Japanese bombed numerous Chinese cities, causing enormous casualties and damage, in which around 20 million people died. The War also left the Nationalist Party in a precarious position, while the Communist Party gained more influence. The film was produced during the Chinese Civil War. Fei Mu at this time finished the film in only three months by not using scripts and cutting the screenplay by two thirds. At the end of the film, Fei Mu and screenwriter Li Tianjin considered using a screenplay in which Zhichen and Yuwen joined revolution together—a kind of finale of a classic left-wing movie since it is an easy solution. However, they ended up deciding not to use this ending.  Wei Wei, to prepare for her eventual iconic role, was told to underact her emotions. The Peking Opera actor Mei Lanfang was instructed to be her model. The war between the Nationalists and the Communists is referenced ever so slightly in the film when Liyan scoffs at the notion that they are living in peaceful times despite the end of the Sino-Japanese conflict.
Spring In A Small Town applied some analogies of ancient poetry to the scenes and images in the film, like the symbols of the moonlight, candle and orchid. Also, based on the Second Sino-Japanese War background and ruined walls image, the theme of Du Fu’s poem "Spring Prospect" was invoked in this film:
The nation shattered, mountains and river remain.
City in spring, grass and trees burgeoning.
Feeling the times, blossoms draw tears.
Hating separation, birds alarm the heart.
Beacon fires three months in succession, a letter from home worth ten thousand in gold.
White hairs, fewer for the scratching, soon too few to hold a hairpin up.
The poem was written after An Lushan Rebellion in 757 CE, which almost toppled the Tang Dynasty and is often seen as the beginning of Tang Dynasty’s long decline. It expresses Du Fu's hatred of war and his sympathy for the people.
This film represents the physical and psychological trauma for people and country after the war between China and Japan. Even though the Japanese forces surrendered, China was largely in ruins, having a large effect on its people in the post-war period. The city wall in the film is an important motif, as its dilapidated state reflects not only the physical destruction of the war, but also the general post-war depression of the people; the latter is personified by the male protagonist, Dai Liyan, who suffers from a psychosomatic illness as he struggles to cope with the destruction and decline of his estate following the War. The recurring scene of the broken city wall shown in the film reminds the audience about the destruction caused by the war.
This film also explores Confucian values through the romantic struggles between characters, Yuwen and Zhichen. According to Susan Daruvala, the film acknowledges instincts and emotions as integral parts of a love relationship, yet they must be directed by wisdom or intelligence. Despite the tempting passion in the relationship between Yuwen and Zhichen, it, ultimately, does not materialize, hence highlighting its unfeasibility within the framework of Confucian values: wisdom, intelligence, and loyalty. In addition, the ideology fa hu qing, zhi hu li (发乎情止乎礼) appears in the film, it means "you may talk about love, but don't cross beyond the limits of etiquette." Inoue and Choe state that this phrase plays a key part to "[rationalizing] the impasse of the situation" between Yuwen, Zhichen, and Liyan, and summarizes the relationship between males and females in China during that time.
The film could be regarded as a feminist film, considering Yuwen's voice-over narration is "unapologetic and frank in her description of her relationship with her husband." Her blatant lack of guilt not only deviates from traditional norms at the time, but the film, which appears to favor her subjectivity, is also inconsistent with other films produced at the time.
Lyricism in Spring in a Small Town
Spring in a Small Town starts with a voice narration of the female protagonist, Yuwen. Her voice-over tells the tedious routines of her daily life. She describes the plot as it is shown to the audience, and she adds her personal feelings into her narration. Her voice-over lasts for about 18 minutes until she and Zhichen physically meet in the film for the first time after their separation caused by the war. Yuwen's narration is often regarded as highly artistic and unique by critics. Well-respected Hong Kong poet, Ping-kwan Leung, commented on the artistry and lyricism in the film. He argues that Yuwen's voice is more than just simple narration, it is rather a lyrical film form which is characteristic of modern literary ideology. According to Leung, the voice-over is the key to establishing the film's exceptional sense of lyricism as well as to Fei Mu's personal interpretation of ruination and his poetic aesthetics. The author also notes that instead of describing what happened, the narration more focuses on the protagonist's inner emotional change and struggle.
According to Jie Li, Yuwen's voice-over accompanied by her personal subjective point of view shots connects the dreary city walls, her husband's pessimism, and the ruins in the family compound. The amble cinematography in the film resonates with Du Fu's famous poem “Spring Gazing”, which was written during the An Lushan Rebellion. The voice of Yuwen is the bridge that associates the dull, lifeless city ruins to the intimate household where the characters disclose their longing for passion and closure.
- Wei Wei (韋偉) as Zhou Yuwen (周玉紋 Zhōu Yùwén), the heroine;
- Yu Shi (石羽)  as Dai Liyan (戴禮言 Dài Lǐyán), her husband;
- Li Wei as Zhang Zhichen (章志忱 Zhāng Zhìchén), Dai Liyan's childhood friend and Yuwen's former lover
- Cui Chaoming as Lao Huang (老黃 lǎo Huáng), Dai and Yuwen's loyal servant;
- Zhang Hongmei as Dai Xiu (戴秀 Dài Xiù), Dai Liyan's young sister.
Made after the war, Spring in a Small Town, unlike its leftist predecessors of the 1930s, focused on a more intimate affair with only tangential references to the politics of the day. Indeed, the film can be distinguished from those earlier works by its more mature treatment of inter-personal conflicts, particularly in the sense that there are no clear antagonists except for time and circumstance.
Because of this apparent lack of "political" grounding, Spring in a Small Town was rejected by the Communist Party as rightist or reactionary, and was ignored following the Communist victory in China in 1949. This criticism was connected to socialist realist cultural policy introduced by the Soviet Union in the 1930s. The environment in the film enhances the mood of a solitary obscure town and broken homes. Complemented by low music and slow rhythm. There are no other characters in addition to the five characters, which creates a "tragic and lonely " atmosphere in the film.
The film was only able to find its audience and had a resurgence in popularity after the China Film Archive made a new print in the early 1980s. Today, it is considered one of the most classic masterworks in Chinese film history. In 2011, the film was enlisted in the list of the top best 100 Chinese films, by the Taipei Golden Horse Film Festival Executive Committee. In 2005, the Hong Kong Film Awards Association named it the greatest Chinese film ever made. Sixth Generation film director Wang Chao also declared the film to be one of his favourites and Fei Mu the director he most admired. In 2002, the film was remade by Tian Zhuangzhuang as Springtime in a Small Town.
Spring in a Small Town is available with English subtitles translated by Professor Christopher Rea on YouTube. Other subtitled versions are available commercially from the British Film Institute and Cinema Epoch.
In 2002, a remake film for Spring in a Small Town called Springtime in a Small Town was directed by Tian Zhuangzhuang. The remake received accolades and recognition in the Venice Film Festival and rave reviews, although it was criticized for removing Yuwen's voice over. Li Liuyi, one of the mainland's leading theatre directors, together with actors from the Beijing People's Art Theatre and the China National Theatre, produced the world premiere of "Spring in a Small Town" on April 10, 2015. The play is adapted from the classic film in 1948 of the same name and same plot.
“In the Faraway Place” and "One Cute Rose" are folk songs created by Wang Loubin and song by Hongmei Zhang & Yu Shi. Sound recording is Miao Zhenyu and music is Huang Yijun.
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- “In the Faraway Place” and "One Cute Rose" on YouTube