Spring In A Small Town Review

The rich heritage of classic silent and post-war Chinese cinema has not yet been fully explored on DVD and certainly not in any definitive English language edition. Among their first batch of releases of some of the most important films in the history of Chinese cinema, USA label Cinema Epoch have included Fei Mu’s 1948 chamber melodrama Spring In A Small Town, considered by many to be simply the best Chinese film of all time.

The film’s qualities were not always quite so well appreciated, the Communist authorities in particular being highly critical of what they saw as its petit-bourgeois ‘decadence,’ focussing on the turmoil of a small group of self-absorbed individuals and distracting its audience from the very real cultural issues facing the country in the post-war period. It’s precisely this exploration of the inner lives of its characters, in particular its powerful internalised depiction of passions and sexual desires from a female perspective in a manner that has scarcely been bettered, that has ensured the film’s reputation and relevance.

The film’s principal female character Yuwen (Wei Wei) has all but given up on any kind of fulfilment in her life. Trapped in the ruins of their house in a small town devastated by the Second World War, Yuwen is caught up in a marriage with Dai Liyan (Yu Shi), a man she never really loved. Liyan has been ill with a heart condition for six of the eight years they have been married, and the relationship between them has for a long time lacked any passion, Yuwen’s role being reduced to a nursemaid looking after the sick man.

One day however, Liyan’s old schoolfriend Zhang Zhichen (Wei Li) arrives in the town by train and stays with them as a guest. His presence throws the quiet household into turmoil. Liyan starts to feel better and is able to take more air and reduce his medication. His young sixteen year-old sister who lives with them, is enchanted by this man who has seen so much more of the world beyond the confines of their small town, and Liyan thinks Zhang might make a good match for the young girl. However, unknown to him, Yuwen and Zhang once had a relationship until the young man left to study and work in the provinces as a doctor. Brought together again unexpectedly, the frustrations Yuwen has been experiencing in her marriage give rise to old passions, long ago put aside.

Director Fei Mu depicts both the surface narrative of the story and the incredible flux of the internal emotional states of the characters with remarkable facility and expressiveness. The presence of Zhang Zhichen gives rise to powerful conflicting passions within each of the characters, creating several situations where little is said, but the tensions between them are palpably felt. Much of this is expressed in the subtlest of gestures and the suggestive and symbolic use of objects – scarves, orchids, a bottle of medicine – but also in an exquisite sense of pacing and editing. The cuts between scenes at the start of the film start to give way to a delicate flow of cross-fades when Zhang arrives, as if time has started to flow again for Yuwen and, with dream-like elliptical jumps, it even appears to move forward faster than she can keep up with any time the young doctor is in close proximity.

Outwardly impassive, Wei Wei manages to express the entire inner life of Yuwen with few words. Her dialogue and her intentions are direct, but even the briefest of exchanges reveal the depths of her conflicting emotions – a mixture of love and hatred for the sick man she is tied to, jealousy for the little sister’s relationship with the doctor, and her own deep passions, driven by sexual frustration and bitterness for a past that might have turned out differently. Spring In A Small Town is surely one of the most intense and accurate films ever made on the complex subject of human emotions and female psychology, and its power has not diminished in the sixty years since it was made.

Spring In A Small Town is released in the USA by Cinema Epoch. The film is presented on a single-layer disc in NTSC format and is not region encoded.

There would appear to have been no real restoration done on the film, which is presented here in a quite poor quality print. There are numerous tiny scratches as well as quite a few larger marks, blots and damage throughout, including missing frames replaced by black inserts. Although there is a surprising amount of detail available in interior shots, contrast isn’t good, and exteriors show that the brightness has been boosted to such an extent that it washes out any whites, and particularly skies and faces. The image is inevitably very soft, almost blurred in places, and certainly doesn’t look well when projected onto a large screen. It might still have been acceptable in this state, since it is largely intact and the only means of viewing an important piece of Chinese cinema history, however, the problems with the print are only compounded by issues with the transfer, which does appear to be poorly authored. Interlaced, the already soft image bobs and blurs further to become almost unwatchable on a progressive display. Pixilation is also barely contained during normal playback, and is clearly evident on scene transitions. In reality, this looks about as good as the average VCD transfer and if you are content enough with that, the unrestored Spring In A Small Town is still watchable. If you have any higher expectations than that – and considering the importance of the film, you have every right to expect more - you are likely to be severely disappointed by what is presented here.

The condition of the audio track is also very poor. Dialogue is reasonably clear, if inevitably somewhat muffled and dull, but there is a significant loud amount of noise, hiss, crackle and distortion audible throughout. There are drop-outs, a few missing lines and some lip-sync issues.

English subtitles at least are perfect, optional in a clear white font.

There is only one extra feature on the disc itself, an Essay by Wade Major, which is rather short and not particularly in-depth either on the film’s history or analysis of its content.

The reputation of Spring In A Small Town is well deserved. It may not be as controversial or as challenging of political ideology as other films of the post-war period, but its concerns are resolutely human ones, and consequently they remain all the more relevant and apparent even to a modern-day audience. On his return to filmmaking ten years after the Chinese authorities banned The Blue Kite, Tian Zhuangzhuang undertook a remake of Spring In A Small Town in 2002 as Springtime In A Small Town, partly as a way of relearning how to make a film. There could be no better model than this classic film, widely considered to be the greatest Chinese film ever made. Despite the rather poor state of the print used by Cinema Epoch on this rather disappointing transfer, the film’s qualities are nonetheless still clearly evident. Reasonably priced using the link below to DVD Pacific, in the absence of anything better, it may still be worth the purchase.

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