AFED #68: Xiǎochéng zhī chūn [Spring in a Small Town] (China, 1948); Dir. Fei Mu

It feels a little disprespectful to have gone nearly a fifth of the way into this odyssey without covering a single film by either of the world's two most populated countries. Hopefully I'll be able to take a look at some Indian cinema next week, but first here's the film that was voted the greatest in Chinese history in a poll by the prestigious Hong Kong Film Awards in 2005.

Spring in a Small Town
is a melodrama concerning Dai Liyan (Shi Yu) and Zhou Yuwen (Wei Wei), a couple who live with Liyan's effervescent teenage sister Dai Xiu on the outskirts of a small town shortly after the end of the second Sino-Japanese War. Liyan has spent some years recuperating from tuberculosis and, combined with regret for the decline in his family's fortunes, his marriage to Yuwen is stagnant and passionless.

Into this setting comes Zhang Zhichen (Li Wei) a doctor and childhood friend of Liyan who, unbeknownst to Liyan, was also Yuwen's sweetheart many years earlier. The former lovers are inevitably torn between the reigniting of old passions and loyalty for Liyan.

Sensitively directed by Fei Mu, with a delicacy of touch and pacing (reminiscent of Ozu) that most western cinema lacks, the story develops without excessive drama until the final act. Even then there are no angry confrontations, no heroes or villains, and the characters act with maturity and decency towards one another. These are good people making the best of a difficult situation and you find yourself caring for their predicament, whereas in a comparable story like Brief Encounter the two leads just seemed rather selfish. It's due in no small part to the excellent performances, particularly that of Wei.

Made shortly before the communists took power in 1949, the reputation of Spring in a Small Town suffered in its home country for many years because of its lack of a political standpoint. It seems amazing to those of us used to liberal democracy that such a touching human drama can be viewed in starkly utilitarian terms, but thankfully at least it survived to be appreciated in more tolerant times. Unfortunately Chinese films from these period are very hard to get hold of so I may not get to cover another this year.


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