Spring in a Small Town
”Spring in a small town (Xiao Cheng Zhi Chun)” is the third Chinese film on the list. With about 10 years between each film they represent their periods. “Shen Nu” was a silent movie, “Ye Ban Ge Sheng” was a musical and “Spring in a Small Town” is a noir’ish film.
It may be a stretch, but there are so many noir elements in “Spring in a Small Time” that it fits quite neatly into the late forties. There is a narrator telling the story in flashback with a foreboding voice that seems to tell us that things will not turn out well. There is a very limited cast who seem to live a life in the shade and a lot of the scenes are filmed in a shadowy half-light. Several times I was reminded of “The Postman Always Rings Twice” and certainly the director has not been entirely ignorant of Western filmmaking in his time.
But “Spring in a Small Town” is also an unmistakable Chinese film and in many ways it is a film leading up to excellent Eastern films like “In the Mood for Love”. These very Chinese elements can make the movie interesting, but it can also be rather disturbing and sometimes outright annoying.
The story is almost as classic as it is possible to get. In a small town far away (mostly important because it makes the character feel like they are the only people in the world) Zhou Yuwen (Wei Wei) lives a passive life taking care of her sick husband Dai Liyan (Shi Yu). He has tuberculosis and a weak heart and for years he has lived a passive life. We are told that he can be tyrannical, but frankly we do not see much of it. He comes out of a wealthy family but of the estate there is very little left after the war except for a single servant and the fact that these people can go around in their half ruined compound without really doing anything in terms of generating income. Liyan has a 16 year old sister (Zhang Hongmei as Dai Xiu) who lives with Yuwen and Liyan. This stupor is broken when Liyan’s old friend Zhang Zhichen (Li Wei) comes to visit. Not only is he a study mate of Liyan, he is also an old lover of Yuwen. Zhichen left to study medicine when Yuwen was 16 and the relationship was broken off. Instead Yuwen ended up in an unfulfilling marriage with Liyan. Now that Zhichen is back it is very clear that their love for each other never died. Unfortunately there is the little issue that Yuwen is married to a man that needs her even if they do not love each other. To top off the dilemma Liyan really wants to marry off his little sister to Zhichen and implore Yuwen to help him set the two up with each other.
Of course this being a Chinese film the simple solution with a divorce and Yuwen going back with Zhichen to Shanghai is not an option. Instead Yuwen and Zhichen go through an angst ridden emotional rollercoaster of being together, not being together, tempting and refusing each other. In this sense this is a clear precursor to “In the Mood for Love” and there are elements of “Brief Encounter” here, though I think mostly because this theme is so classic, old and universal that the relation is a case of convergent evolution.
Although I am not a fan of triangle dramas, they tend to annoy me more than engage me, this story could have been really good. I am a big fan of “In the Mood for Love” and “Brief Encounter” is in my top 10 of movies from the forties. Unfortunately “Spring in a Small Town” does not really work for me. The technical quality on all levels is simply too low. This is not so much the actual filming and lighting. There are good elements here and although it is nowhere near Hollywood level it is still a big step forward from the helpless quality of “Ye Ban Ge Shen”. The problem is the direction and the acting. Where Japanese directors like Ozu and Mizoguchi master the style of letting the scene itself talk and minimize the expression of the actors themselves, essentially underplaying the scenes, “Spring in a Small Town” goes the other way. It is overplayed and stylized in the extreme. All emotions are written in capitals as for a theater stage and essentially all subtlety is gone. I know this is typical of Chinese films, I have seen it too many time and Chinese television hardly needs subtitles because the actors are hammering the message through, but this is a film that requires the opposite style. You do not need to see Yuwen constantly walking around with her head bowed and turn away her face in anguish. Xiu hardly needs to be exaggerated teenage exuberant and Liyan always looks like he is about to die. It is just too much. In the hands of Ozu this could have been done elegantly, but as it is I just get annoyed with these character. It is so obviously an act that I just feel like slapping their faces.
This annoys me because I want to like this film. There are elements to the story that touches elemental human issues of guilt and duty, lust and love and this could have been great.
At the end of the day Yuwen has a masochistic trait and she clearly finds a sad pleasure in suffering. She hides in her little mental cave when she does embroidery and dream of better times when she walks the city wall, but she would never be happy running away with Zhichen. He is the dream and embracing the dream would ruin it. No, she belongs with Liyan where they can be martyrs together.