Director: Mu Fei
By Roderick Heath
When we think of Chinese cinema, the dashing products of Hong Kong’s industrious studios or the works of the so-called Fifth Generation of mainland filmmakers like Yimou Zhang or Kaige Chen probably come to mind first. The great flowering of filmmaking seen in the 1930s and ’40s known as the Golden Age of Chinese Cinema is, by comparison, still an obscure and patchily known field.
Often voted the greatest film ever made in China, Spring in a Small Town was, much like its characters, almost a victim of history’s heedless motion. One of the last works produced before the ascent of the Communist government, director Mu Fei’s movie was controversial right from its first screening because of its subject matter, and soon was buried and reviled as a petty, indulgent distraction for decades. Fei died barely four years after making it, when like so many others, he was trying to revive his career in Hong Kong.
The very subject of Fei’s film is the moment of its making, that brief period between the defeat of the Japanese invaders and the Maoist takeover. Fei strove to record that time on a psychological as well as external level, and he depicts it as a moment of collective exhaustion, disorientation, and yearning. For a film hailed as such an achievement, Spring in a Small Town is disarmingly modest and sparse on the surface, describing a chamber drama of finite emotions and domestic concerns. The essential elements of Fei’s tale could easily come from some transcribed Chekhov play, though the actual source was a short story by Li Tianji, who adapted it for the screen.
The setting is a ruined mansion, the characters members of a once-prosperous and powerful clan now damaged and declining, their aging servant, and an interloper. The title announces ambiguous, counterintuitive purposes. Spring refers as much to the promise of postwar regeneration as to the turn of the seasons, but the drama’s cloying fixation is a single family’s interior lives rather than the community implied in the title. The implication is, that something like this drama was occurring in small towns across the country, and the film represents the spiritual story of the age.
The lives of the Dai family are defined by two ruins: the demolished old town wall, a remnant psychic boundary in the mind of the townsfolk and a signifier of the lost social specifics of Chinese social life, and the Dai mansion itself, a more recent victim of war, which sits like the discarded husk of a past and irrelevant existence that depressed scion Liyan Dai (Shi Yu) haunts like a ghost in his own life meditating on his lost inheritances, beset by ill health, which he thinks is tuberculosis and his wife Yuwen Zhou (Wei Wei) dismisses as neurosis.
Yuwen makes the trek each day into town to fetch groceries and medicines for her husband, usually taking a detour to walk along the ruined wall with the slight vantage it offers over the flatlands surrounding her world. Lao Huang (Chaoming Cui) is the old family servant who maintains what was once a standalone cottage in the estate, but which is now their refuge. He declares the mansion can be repaired if they tackle it piece by piece, but such resolve is beyond Liyan. The one bright spot in the family is Liyan’s younger sister Xiu (Hongmei Zhang), a schoolgirl on the verge of her sixteenth birthday.
When not engaged in her pressing domestic duties, Yuwen, who can barely stand looking at her husband, retreats into Xiu’s room to work on her needlepoint. Liyan confronts his wife, trying to talk her into letting Lao Huang go to town instead because he worries about her and finally admits he’s pained she seems to have accepted the miserable situation they’ve all fallen into. The tenuous balance of tolerance sustaining that situation is disturbed when a face from the past climbs over the estate boundary. Zhichen Zhang (Li Wei), a former schoolmate of Liyang’s, left the distract before the war to become a doctor and now has returned to see his friend, who is stirred from his melancholy to greet his pal happily. What Zhichen doesn’t know at first, however, is that Liyan has married Yuwen, who comes from the same town as Zhichen and was his great love.
Fei’s unusual storytelling devices are in evidence from the outset, working like the title to create a faintly ironic, distancing impression, but which cumulatively help Fei gain a rigorous grip on the viewer. As each character appears on screen for the first time, he flashes the name of the character and the actor in the role on screen, diffusing the theatre bill-like precepts of movie credits from the 1930s into the texture of the film itself, as if to announce both that the identities of these figures and their nature as fictitious entities are vital to what Fei is trying to convey, another ironic touch.
Yuwen narrates in the second person as though remembering and experiencing, dropping details like how Huang always tosses medicine out the back door because of a superstition, and noting the painful peculiarities of her marriage not by registering emotions, but facts, such as sometimes, when she’s walking on the wall, she doesn’t go back until night, often doesn’t exchange a word with her husband during their required daily contacts, and declares “I’ll never think about anything ever again.” Liyang tries to confront Yuwen about this elusive, resigned habit she’s developed, and suggests that they should probably split up, an idea that Yuwen, who in spite of everything takes her wifely duties seriously, can’t countenance.
Yuwen’s method of deploying details as devices of inference and implication is also Fei’s method. Zhichen arrives clad in western clothes as opposed to the Dais, who wear more traditional garb, signaling both the stagnancy of life in this small town as well as the attempts to maintain a link with traditions that have been shattered, and also Zhichen’s promise of the exotic. The doctor has been working as an army surgeon, following the war around as he rattles off all the cities he’s been to to Zhichen: he’s been engaged with the history that has rolled over the top of the Dais. Both world-weary Yuwen and fresh-faced Xiu signal their stirred desires for the doctor by giving him gifts: Yuwen has Lao Huang take him a potted orchid and Xiu a bonsai tree.
Fei was only in his early forties when he made his masterwork, but he was already a highly experienced and acclaimed figure on the Shanghai film scene. He had worked as an assistant to Hou Yao, a pioneer of early Chinese cinema, before his directing debut with 1933’s Night in the City. His creative verve as a distinctive and inventive artist with a deep interest in studying and celebrating the national culture in the face of a pummeling epoch was quickly acknowledged after he made Blood on Wolf Mountain (1936), seen by some as a metaphor for the Japanese occupation of Manchuria Song of China (1935), a celebration of traditions that became one of the few Chinese films of the era to gain U.S. screenings; and the long-lost Confucius (1940). He filmed several Chinese operas and included elements of that form when he shot the first Chinese film in colour, Remorse at Death (1948). Here, too, he incorporates a musical aspect in one of the film’s most impressive scenes, when Xiu sings to her family and Zhichen as they row a boat along a river.
This scene, a nominally festive interlude where the newcomer seems to have stirred the clan from their malaise, is reminiscent of the jollity momentarily patching over coming ructions in the snow sequence in The Magnificent Ambersons (1941), another film concerned with changing societies and the decline of aristocratic cultural mores, whilst the emotions percolating within each of the four boaters, obvious to the camera but not each other, are caught with exacting focus by the director. Spring in a Small Town is certainly on one level about the culture Fei wanted to buttress, seen as subsisting in a state of flux, with awful wrenches behind and ahead. The inconsistent power supply in the town means nightly blackouts, rendering the inhabitants time travelers moved arbitrarily between present and past, the jagged, inescapable immediacy of the light bulb and the floating dreaminess of candlelight. Yet the impossibility of recapturing the past or even cutting the losses of the present is constantly stressed.
Fei’s feel for placing his actors in settings attentive to the interplay of space and action, nature and human works, echoes Jean Renoir’s subtle, yet cumulatively forceful sense of mise-en-scene whilst skewing his visual effects close to the harmonic ideals of Chinese visual art ,where nature and structure are supposed to exist in balanced interaction. What is disrupted in the ruined mansion and the broken wall, the relation between the functional, resilient constructed form and the teeming, invasive strength of natural growth, is still intact in the less luxurious, near-ignominious, but perhaps healthier life in the cottage. The theme of a troubled marriage and the interloper who promises disruption bears a distinct similarity to one basic plot motif found in another postwar movie type, film noir.
However, where noir’s exploration of the blasted and alienated mood out in the boondocks after the great conflict was sublimated into criminal parables, here it is in a domestic drama that violence is exchanged for emotional flurries and the spectacle of psyches twisting in on themselves. The closest western cinematic relative to Fei’s work here is David Lean’s Brief Encounter (1945). Both movies describe potential adulterous affairs, intensely personal, almost eventless tales all the better to unravel the tight wrapping on survivors of wartime, revealing the frustration wrought by subordinating personal desires to communal needs and faced with new choices completely at odds with the settled values all that fighting was supposed to defend and the habits of stoicism. Lean’s graphic, cosmopolitan approach where the repressed emotions unexpressed by the characters are enacted via the filmmaking is largely different to Fei’s style, which is mostly closer to the quietly observant humanism of Yasujiro Ozu.
The exception to this quiet, observant approach is the most unusual and celebrated device Fei deploys, during scenes of interaction between Yuwen and Zhichen: Fei breaks up the scenes with dissolves, sliding woozily from moment to moment, stance to stance, communicating the force of the couple’s restrained ardour where the structure of time and reality seems distorted, the disparity between psyche and exterior inside the characters registered as a stutter in the film technique. Here Fei’s formal experimentation anticipates New Wave filmmaking’s obsessive fascination for using the texture of cinema itself as a dramatic tool. (Martin Scorsese is one filmmaker who has often employed a similar technical idiosyncrasy. Of course, Scorsese took on a vitally similar theme of thwarted, honourably withheld passion in The Age of Innocence (1993), whilst many of Scorsese’s films deal with a similar notion of characters who feel entrapped by socially imposed identities.)
Fei’s work here has perhaps echoed through contemporary Chinese film since its rediscovery in the 1980s, with directors as temperamentally diverse as Wong Kar-Wai and Hou Hsiao-hsien visibly engaged with his legacy. A lengthy, one-shot sequence of the family dining as a vibrant unit resembles Hou’s experiment with sustaining transfixing interaction in long takes in Flowers of Shanghai (1998). The focus on a pair of lovers whose affair must remain superficially chaste inevitably echoes Wong’s In The Mood for Love (2000), whilst the concept of life’s stages as akin to seasons was revisited in The Grandmaster (2014).
The first encounter when Yuwen is called out of the cottage by Liyang to meet the guest, who has no idea that his friend married his former flame, sees Zhichen’s shock revealed in a sudden close-up, versus Yuwen’s slightly more prepared, fiercely dissembling glare. Yuwen is quietly transformed by the return of her lover, and not quite in the moony, readily pathos-stirring way of many a guilty romantic heroine.
Wei Wei’s brilliant performance communicates how Yuwen’s wiry energy and frustrated imperious streak as a waning former belle of the ball have been forcibly converted into their opposite, a languid torpor and an archly dutiful subservience to her role, as if the best revenge she sees for the life she is leading now is to lead it unimpeachably. It’s all in her fingers, as she constantly folds her hands in the proper stance of attention, but lets her fingers strangle each other in increasingly fretful and agitated repression as Zhichen’s tenure at the cottage continues. Although almost always a pillar of quiet, boding rectitude, Yuwen’s coquettish streak occasionally shines through her façade, as does her fearsome passion, which seems sometimes poised to manifest as aggression. Her tendency to seek solitude and seclusion, far from being an asocial or introverted quality, keeps her restrained, as she often seems on the verge of pouncing on the men in her life to break them to pieces or ravage them in frenzy.
Fei repeatedly depicts Yuwen lounging on her bed or sitting, apparently immobilised but clearly fixated. Soon it emerges that Yuwen and Zhichen’s long-ago romance was stymied by his lack of standing and worldliness, not even knowing how to get a match made, and then his departure for university, leaving Yuwen to be snatched up by the upstanding and propertied Liyang, only for everything that made him a good match to fall apart. Liyang remains unaware of Yuwen and Zhichen’s past, and he hits upon what he thinks is a good way to make his friend happy and start building the family up again: marrying Zhichen to Xiuhe. The sprightly teenager seems charmed enough by the doctor to be open to the idea, while Yuwen covertly boils at the idea, but agrees to suggest the match to Zhichen. Meanwhile, Zhichen’s own ministrations seem to be working for Liyang, who’s able to leave the house and enjoy himself with the family.
The giddy, happy drunkenness of Xiu’s birthday celebrations becomes catalyst for tipping the characters closer to their moments of personal moral crisis. Yuwen seems to set out purposefully to seduce Zhichen in his room in a sequence charged to melting point with sexual tension that can only be squandered, the cloud-streaked full moon above a recurring image, as if dictating the strange tides of the human heart. The acme of the romantic longing comes when Zhichen suddenly sweeps Yuwen up in his arms, a few breathless paces away from the bed. He then slowly lowers her and detaches again, the moment gone forever. Zhichen flees, trying to lock Yuwen in rather than let her presence taunt him. She laughs at him through a glass pane in the door and then punches the glass out to release herself, erotic energy transmuted into sado-masochistic violence. Zhichen rushes to repair her wound, essentially reveling in his own grudging emotional impotence.
The promise of revival Zhichen brings with him as an emblem of a functional and modernising world beyond the river proves in large part illusory, as he stirs Liyang from his depression and gives hope of recovery. Instead, he can’t escape the roundelay of history any more than his friends, and the contradictions he represents sends his patient into crisis. Fei implies that, in the same manner, the confused and contradictory impulses of China’s entry into the modern, westernised world had done it more damage than good, unable to cleave from the pillars of old faiths and not yet able to erect effective replacements—the electric light still gives out at night, the medicine doesn’t always work. Liyang seems to become aware at last that something is going on between his wife and his friend, and the husband, always stringently honest and self-searching to the point of being infuriating, tells his wife he has to get better or he might as well die and stop burdening her.
The beauty of Fei’s filmmaking and his refrains to nature’s cycles are both ironic in counterpointing the septic tendencies of humans toward fruitless introspection, but also suggest that frailty is in itself a mere aspect of nature. The process of reconstruction has to be first accomplished on the interior level before the will can be found to start piling up the bricks and mixing the mortar. This is a process Fei reflects on early in the film when Liyang tries half-heartedly to do just that, plucking fragments of brick from the rubble of the mansion and stacking them. It’s a fleeting stab at action by a man of no skill or resolve who ceases when he notices his wife watching, perhaps with scorn or with pity or a mixture of both, from a distance.
Xiu has the elastic resilience of youth, the promise of a new time living in her gawky limbs. Nihilistic temptations are before the older characters, with Liyang making overtures to Zhichen for the doctor to help him end his life, an act that could clear the way for him and Yuwen. Resisting the inducement to cross that line proves an unstated, but vital aspect of what Fei is depicting, as much as the doctor and the housewife resisting their emotional impulses in trying to reknit the fabric of a civil life in a way that’s more meaningful than mere habit.
Eventually Liyang attempts suicide on his own with his supply of sleeping pills—a classic version of the Chekhovian gun, as those pills are given allusive import throughout the film, to the point where Zhichen even replaces some with placebos, possibly anticipating such an act—finally bringing this quandary to crisis point. Xiu fearfully begs Zhichen to save her brother, and rather than being left to expire, Liyang’s act proves his friend’s and family’s devotion to him holds fast, his courting of death instead providing a perverse reason to live. Zhichen departs the small town for the sake of himself and the Dais.
But whilst the final shots replicate the early ones, they come with pointed difference, dispelling the notion that cycles mean stasis. Yuwen had essentially raised Xiu, but Xiu’s recognition that Zhichen and Yuwen love each other has transformed their relationship. Zhichen walks the road out of town accompanied by Xiu and Huang, having reconnected with his society, whilst Liyang, leaning on a crutch but moving under his own steam, joins his wife on the ruined wall where she stood alone before, giving some hope that the spring really has arrived. The last line of the film, fittingly, is Xiu inviting Zhichen back for the summer. Spring in a Small Town finally offers a very hard-won affirmation.