I've taken a break from reviewing documentaries to celebrate Valentine's Day by watching a film which takes a poignant look at honouring a dying marriage and controlling adulterous desires.
Spring in a Small Town is a highly regarded Chinese film from director Fei Mu made back in 1948, a year before the founding of the People's Republic of China when it promptly got pushed out of the public's eye. Luckily it got restored in the 80's and by 2005 it was voted the greatest Chinese motion picture of all time at the 24th Hong Kong Film Awards. It's never had a UK DVD release though until now, when the BFI have followed up a cinema run with this home entertainment version.
The film is set in the aftermath of the Sino-Japanese War (1937-45) and tells the story of the Dai family who are living in the ruins of their once wealthy home in a small town in rural China. Liyan (Shi Yu) is the husband, stricken with an illness which may be psychological, spending his days mourning for the past. Yuwen (Wei Wei) is his wife who has lost interest in the relationship and merely plays the part. The two are stuck deep in a rut until Zhang (Li Wei), an old friend of Liyan, arrives at the house after a decade away. It's quickly apparent that Zhang and Yuwen have a history together too and thus begins a doomed love triangle, not helped by Liyan's young sister who lives with them and also takes a shine to Zhang.
It sounds like classic, well trodden melodrama, but this is masterfully crafted cinema that transcends its narrative cliches. Also, before I get into the craft in more detail, the post-war setting adds depth and an air of melancholy and hopelessness to proceedings. In questioning the role of women, particularly wives, in catering for their husband's needs, toeing the line whether they want to or not, it feels ahead of its time too.
What Spring in a Small Town gets right, among many things, is it keeps the drama from getting melodramatic. It's very subtle for such an old film, with the emotions and key character beats all happening under the surface. Some relatively big turns towards the end threaten to become over the top, but Mu always keeps things under control and never over-does anything. This control leads the film to a quietly poignant finale which doesn't offer a clean happy or sad ending.
What drives this low key film is a simmering sexual tension between Yuwen and Zhang. The scenes with them alone together crackle with energy without ever resorting to out and out fireworks. The performances help make this happen and all the cast do a great job. So much is done with glances and body language rather than line delivery.
From a technical standpoint the film is great too. It's not showily shot, but it has a wonderfully elegant look to it. The lighting in the night scenes is particularly gorgeous, using low key high contrast lighting to create a moodily beautiful vision of forbidden love.
The only aspect that I had a bit of a problem with was the voiceover which runs throughout the film. It features most prominently in the first third and I found it annoyingly over-descriptive when the rest of the film is very subtle and allows the audience to think for themselves. The writing of the narration is often quite eloquent though so it wasn't all bad and as the film goes on the voiceover is used less frequently.
It's a minor complaint in an otherwise excellent film. Exquisitely well made and beautifully understated, Spring in a Small Town is something to treasure.
Spring in a Small Town is released on DVD on 23rd February in the UK by the BFI. The picture quality is pretty good. There's a little damage and flicker here and there and there was a strange bit of digital break up at one point, but that may have just been my screener copy. The audio is a strange one as the whole film sounded echoey. It might be the way they did sound for film in China in those days or it might be the only print they could find, but I found it quite distracting – at first at least.
For special features, on top of the usual trailer, you get two period shorts about China from the BFI archives, A Small Town in China and This is China. You also get the standard booklet in with the film, which I must say is a little disappointing here compared to previous booklets, being rather brief. It's still nice to get more context on a film like this though so it's a welcome addition nonetheless.