fri 10/07/2020

DVD: Spring in a Small Town | reviews, news & interviews

DVD: Spring in a Small Town

DVD: Spring in a Small Town

Passion hits the brick wall of decency in Fei Mu's 1948 masterpiece

Teatime tension: from left, Shi Yu, Wei Wei, Zhang Hongmei, and Li Wei.China Film Archive/BFI

The release of pent-up desire in a movie drains it of interest. Its withholding keeps the plot boiling, especially if moral considerations come into play. In Fei Mu’s Spring in a Small Town, the passion of former teenage sweethearts Zhou Yuwen (Wei Wei) and Zhang Zhichen (Li Wei), thrown together ten years after they parted, is extra-torturous because Yuwen’s hypochondriacal husband, Dai Liyan (Shi Yu), is Dr Zhang’s close friend and host.

Though Liyan is initially unaware of the animal need the thwarted lovers suppress, the three of them do a dance of looks and glances in the strange atmosphere of his ruined rural mansion following the Sino-Japanese War. Yuwen and Zhichen are trapped by social decorum and compassion for LIyan on one hand, and on the other by their mutual but unquenchable lust. What’s worse for Yuwen is that Liyan thinks his schoolgirl sister, Dai Xiou (Zhang Hongmei), will soon make Zhichen a perfect wife. That she’s just turning 16 is a humiliating irony for Yuwen since that was her age when Zhichen, too callow to know he could have found a matchmaker to broker their marriage, left for Shanghai.

On one of their clandestine meetings at the nearby ruined city wall in the film’s present, Yuwen scolds Zhichen for his lack of effectiveness and taunts him through a series of camera dissolves within the same scene – a rare and disorienting  grammatical stratagem that suggests both the slow drip of time during their agonizingly unconsummated relationship and the fragmenting of her reality.

Locked by the honourable doctor in his cabin after she has failed to seduce him, Yuwen smiles dementedly and thrusts her fist through the window in his door, cutting her hand severely. (Pictured above: an idealized contemporary poster.)

One hopes that Wei Wei, now 92, has seen the China Film Archive's restoration of this lyrical tour de force, which parallels the anguish and confusion of the post-war reconstruction period and was long suppressed by the Communists for being apolitical. Much less buttoned-up than David Lean’s analogous Brief Encounter (1945), it clearly influenced Wong Kar-wai’s equally sensuous and restrained In the Mood for Love (2000).

Two short films are included on the disc: a white missionary home movie that offers a snapshot of life in small-town China in 1933, and a British 1946 propaganda doc (edited from library footage by John Krish) that boosts democracy and Western industrialization in a nation still emerging from the dark ages.

Yuwen and Zhichen are trapped by social decorum and their mutual but unquenchable lust


Editor Rating: 
Average: 5 (1 vote)

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