Bucket List Movie #433: Spring in a Small Town
First off, Happy First Day of Spring! I promise the review of this particular movie on this particular day was completely accidental. I just love serendipity, don't you?
It never ceases to amaze me the effect time can have on art, especially film. How many times have we read, in utter disbelief, how beloved movies we take for granted were failures upon their release, only to evolve as a classics decades after the fact? Duck Soup was one of the Marx Brothers’ least successful films when it was released, but in the 1960s it was recognized as one of their best movies, as well as a brilliant anti-war satire. It’s a Wonderful Life barely scraped by at the box office in 1946, and now one can’t picture Christmas without it. But probably the most interesting case of time’s revitalizing power on cinema is the 1948 Chinese film Spring in a Small Town.
The most well-known work of director Fei Mu, who only made eight films before his untimely death in 1951 at the age of 44, Spring in a Small Town is one of the most unassuming success stories ever. It was released just before the Communist revolution had spread throughout China, and it was deemed “anti-leftist” and banned for decades. Sadly, Fei Mu was forced to leave, along with other intellectuals and artists, and he was all but forgotten after his death, until the 1980s, when this lovely little film was rediscovered. According to the Wikipedia article, "Spring in a Small Town was rejected by the Communists as rightist or reactionary, and was ignored following the Communist victory in China in 1949. 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 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spring_in_a_Small_Town)". In 2004, the Hong Kong Film Society voted Spring in a Small Town as the greatest Chinese language film, and it has topped similar lists in recent years, embraced as a classic and resurrected from obscurity.
Tiresome Rant of the Day: I wish I could say that Spring in a Small Town has been restored, but since it is in the public domain, it's only available on a bare bones DVD with an unforgivably bad transfer. We're talking someone used a faulty Super 8 to tape it from a distant relative's decrepit TV with rabbit ears. Let us hope that, one day, Spring in a Small Town will warrant a Criterion Collection release, because it certainly deserves it.
Spring in a Small Town tells the very simple story of a married couple, Zhou Yuwen (Wei Wei) and her husband Dai Liyan (Yu Shi). They live in barely genteel poverty following the Sino-Japanese war. Sections of their house are in ruins, their manservant Huang (Chaoming Cui) is grateful just to still have his job, and Liyan’s teenaged sister, Mei (Hongmei Zhang), remains cheerful in spite of everything. The same cannot be said for Yuwen, who suppresses blossoming resentment towards her husband; as Liyan puts it, “we have been married for eight years, and I’ve been ill for six”. What does he suffer from? It’s not very clear, but the movie dares to make us wonder if hypochondria is the main culprit. Liyan wallows in nostalgia and self-pity, while Yuwen spends most of her time embroidering as they squeak by on Liyan’s tiny inheritance. In a scene where Yuwen fingers their bed curtains, it is a subtle clue of the state of their love life.
One day, in comes Zhang Zhichen (Wei Li), a doctor friend of Liyan’s... and Yuwen’s one-time lover, prior to her marriage. While Mei develops a girlish crush she makes no effort to hide, Yuwen is thrown into inner turmoil, for she has always carried a torch for Zhichen, and it only grows stronger. Zhichen, it turns out, feels the same way, and they are both conflicted about their feelings of love for each other, and loyalty to Liyan who, for all his faults, is entirely blameless. Much in the vein of Brief Encounter, our protagonists are forced to make difficult choices, and are left grappling with the dilemma of whether reality is something you can re-shape, or something to be coped with.
This is one of those rare stories where there is no antagonist, all the conflict comes from within, and yet it still holds your attention. The principal cast of actors all had quiet careers, most of them making fewer than 20 films, but they are naturalistic and all too human in their portrayals, and the film never makes the mistake of judging the characters. Sometimes we find Liyan whiny, weak, and self-indulgent, but he is also kind, decent, and genuinely loves his wife and hates being a burden. Yuwen’s feelings of guilt, regret, and resentment are so true that it stings. Who among us hasn’t been torn between being good and feeling good? The sad thing is that, all too often, the two are mutually exclusive. Zhichen is a bit more of a mystery, almost a cipher, but he is not a deliberate home wrecker, and his struggles are just as hard as Yuwen’s. Mei is a sweet, innocent girl, but never a fool; on the contrary, she’s the proverbial glue that holds the family together.
Not that the film is flawless. There is a scene where Yuwen and Zhichen have a conversation and there is a series of cross fades throughout. No great length of time has passed, it is simply an artistic decision, but one I question, since it achieves little but creating an awkward distraction. Admittedly, the dialogue in the movie tends to feel clunky and too obvious, even worse is Yuwen’s voiceover for her inner dialogue (“I need to change my life”, “I’m left with only regret”). Perhaps it's just overly literal translation for the subtitles. I’m willing to forgive it, though, for while the dialogue isn’t much, the silence makes the greatest impact. In a scene that could have torn from an Edith Wharton novel, Yuwen hurts her hand, Zhichen bandages it, only to gradually kiss it with gentle yet incredible passion.
In the noblest human endeavors, we idealistically strive to free the downtrodden from oppression, but the irony is that all humans, in one way or another, live under some kind of oppression. Oppressed by responsibility, regret, poverty, too few choices (or too many), bad habits, or general self-destructive behavior, It is much easier to save the masses than it is ourselves. That is the bittersweet message of Spring in a Small Town: our characters are oppressed in small ways that fundamentally shape their lives. Yet if the lovely final shot is any indication, learning to reconcile with your weaknesses, as well as the weaknesses of others, might be the first step toward freedom.