Springtime In A Small Town Review

Ten years after his last film, the controversial and politically-challenging The Blue Kite, Tian Zhuangzhuang's return to film was more low-key than expected with a quiet and fairly faithful remake of a classic 1948 Chinese film, Spring In A Small Town, a small but beautiful romantic melodrama.

Zhang Zhichen now a qualified doctor in Shanghai, returns to a quiet little town in the provinces after the end of World War II. The town has been devastated by the war and inhabiting the ruins of the town he finds his friend, Liyan, his life similarly reduced to ruin, suffering from ill-health and trapped in a loveless marriage with Yuwen, a girl Zhang was once in love with himself. Zhang’s presence stirs something within his friend and he feels a health and vigour he has not felt for years. For his wife, Yuwen, the young doctor’s presence brings thoughts of how life could have been and ideas of escape, fuelled by an undeniable attraction that still exists between them. The charged tension is further heightened by the presence of Liyan’s young sister.

Springtime in a small town in the provinces of China means a very different pace of life from what we normally see in film, a pace that is reflected in long, slow pans of the camera and leisurely tracking shots. In pace and look it has much in common with Wong Kar-Wai’s In The Mood For Love and Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Flowers of Shanghai (both photographed as here by Mark Li Ping-bing). The photography, like those films, is also simply ravishing, full of warmth and colour – warm ochre tones emblazoned with flashes of brilliant reds and greens. Thematically and stylistically it is not far away from those films either. You really need to adjust to a different pace and style of filmmaking where much is unspoken and feelings are conveyed in looks or glances, or expressed through gestures. Because of the nature of the film and the characters it is hard to judge nuance of gesture and tone in a film like this, but I wasn’t always convinced by the actors’ performances here. This is certainly one area where the film fails to improve on the original version.

Much more powerful and effective - and it is here where the remake differs slightly from the original - are the simple gestures and symbolism used in the film to show powerful emotions that cannot be expressed verbally. In one scene Zhang rescues Yuwen’s white handkerchief from the twisted branches of a barren tree. In a later scene, he drapes a red handkerchief of desire over his face, saying everything that cannot be spoken between them. Aligned with the films pace, such images and actions are immensely significant. The drinking scene and its consequences are drawn out to almost unbearable length, drawing full impact and power from a pivotal scene in the film - the hidden and repressed feelings still remain unspoken but are less well hidden. The repressed emotion and sexual tension is finally expressed in the breaking of a small pane of glass, a simple gesture that takes on powerful force and meaning.

The image is slightly soft on this Artificial Eye release, with a faint haziness and a mild grain, but I’d like to think that is how the film is meant to look – the soft tones matching the gentle surface of the film, the colours expressing the deeper range of emotions that lie below. Colours are striking – deep, vivid and warm. There are a number of dark scenes, but the transfer holds up well - blacks have depth if not a great amount of detail. There are one or two instances of aliasing, but only briefly. The occasional white fleck wouldn’t normally be worth mentioning, but it is slightly more noticeable in a film where there are long static shots and where there are so many dark scenes. Overall though, this is a very impressive transfer.

The sound is fine, if unexceptional. There are some lip-sync problems in the first reel, where voices and sounds are a beat out. This seems to resolve itself after about ten minutes, only to re-occur at the end of the film also.

Subtitles are provided in English and are optional.

The Trailer (2:03) is presented in letterboxed 1.85:1. An extensive and interesting Making of Documentary (59:50) consists mainly of interviews with the director, cast and crew, but also contains rehearsal footage and behind the scenes material. Zhuangzhuang talks about his approach to the film and how it differs from Fei Mu’s original. In many ways, he felt he needed to go back to classic cinema to re-learn how to make films. The actors talk about working with the director and how they also had to re-learn how to act for this film. A Filmography and Biography is included for the director, while the Production Notes focus on the 1948 original and its place in Chinese cinema history.

Springtime In A Small Town is a small-scale, intimate Chekhovian chamber drama, but a very powerful and beautiful one. It’s both a tribute to a classic Chinese film and a rediscovery by the director of what making films is all about. It has that blend of classic simplicity blended with modern technique and distance so prevalent at the moment in Chinese cinema. If you are looking for a change of pace, a dramatic, romantic story and beautiful photography, this will not disappoint.

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