Many in the West are unfamiliar with Chinese films, especially those that are older, but a vibrant Chinese cinema has existed since the beginning of movies, with the industry in the old days mostly centered in Shanghai. One of the most beautiful Chinese films, and most influential on later filmmakers, was Spring in a Small Town, from 1948, directed by Fei Mu.
The story goes like this. In a village decimated by the recent war with Japan, a married couple live a sad, passionless existence. The tubercular husband Liyan wallows in depression while his wife Yuwen labors dutifully for him, finding her only solace in walks along the town’s ruined wall, when she can be alone with her thoughts. The only spark of life in this little world is the husband’s 16-year-old sister.
Then an old friend of Liyan named Zhichen comes to visit after a long absence. We soon discover that, unbeknownst to the husband, Zhichen and Yuwen had been in love when they were teenagers, but his family would not approve the marriage, he went off to Shanghai, and she eventually entered into a loveless union with Liyan. Zhichen’s return now stirs old feelings back to life—Yuwen becomes gradually convinced that she must leave her husband and run away with Zhichen. Zhichen hesitates, unwilling to hurt his old friend. Meanwhile, the clueless Liyan tries to arrange a marriage between Zhichen and his sister.
The triangle theme is of course one of the world’s oldest (the script was adapted by Li Tianji from his own short story) but the treatment in this film is anything but tired. Fei evoked performances of quiet emotional containment from his actors, especially from Wei Wei, as the lonely wife. Meaning is divined here more from what the characters refrain from saying than what they actually say, and momentous feelings are expressed by the most delicate and minute expressions. The voice-over narration by Wei is soft-spoken and minimal in what it reveals. Complementing the acting style is Fei’s graceful, gliding camera movement, following the characters as they walk outdoors or go rowing on the river, the pace of the camera matching the gentle pace of the dialogue. He also uses dissolves within scenes—an unusual technique that mirrors the hesitancy and uncertainty of the interactions between Yuwen and her former lover.
This beautiful movie portrays a deep sadness and loss by defying romantic conventions. The characters act like real people, often confused as to their own motives and desires, rather than the kind of storybook characters typical of romantic melodrama. Fei’s commitment to realism and emotional subtlety is the key to this exquisitely crafted film’s power.
After Mao’s victory in 1949, the director Fei Mu was one of the figures from the Shanghai film industry accused of being a so-called “rightist.” He fled to Hong Kong and founded a production company there, but never directed again. During the post- Mao cultural thaw of the 1980s, his long-neglected work finally gained the critical acclaim it deserved. Spring in a Small Town is available on DVD.