Fei Mu’s Spring in a Small Town was largely forgotten upon its release, mostly thanks to the Communist takeover of China that happened at about the same time. It is only in the last couple decades or so that its status has been rebuilt, and it is now revered as one of the greatest Chinese films ever made, if not the greatest. I don’t know if I would go as far as to put it atop that particular pyramid, but seeing as my first impressions of the film were the extremely rough quality of the opening credits of the print I watched, to say that I surprisingly wasn’t let down is a bit of a victory in and of itself.
Yuwen is the wife to a somewhat frail husband, Liyan. Because of his health, the two are basically hermits, living in their own property, along with their housekeeper and Liyan’s younger sister, not doing much of anything, which includes spending personal time with one another. This changes when Zhang Zhichen, Yuwen and Liyan’s former childhood friend and, unbeknownst to Liyan, Yuwen’s former flame, arrives back into town, and Liyan lets the man stay in their guest house. One or two scenes between Yuwen and Zhang is enough to convince us that the two still have feelings for each other, and the film from that point becomes an hour-long experiment in ‘will they, won’t they?’ When the film first started, the print skipped in and out with its audio, and there were many imperfections to be found in the celluloid itself. Disparaged somewhat at having to watch such an apparently lousy print, I settled in nonetheless… and then the film’s first dolly-in shot came up, and I snapped to attention. Then, another character was introduced, with a dolly into a hole in the side of a wall, and I went, “Whoa. For a Chinese film from 1948, this has some good shots in it.” From there, I chose to admire the technical aspects as much as I could, given the quality of the print I saw, which was in hindsight a good decision, since the story of the film itself had very little to it. It wasn’t poor, it just spent too much time having the characters stand around and let subtext do virtually all the talking, which unfortunately made for a very languid picture. But, getting back to the technical side, the film, as a whole, was very economical, and not just in length. The five characters the film introduces to us with titles in the opening minutes are the only characters seen in the whole film, and thus after we’ve associated names with faces, we are left to focus solely on the story. This, though, comes back around to place us back in the discussion of the plot, which after the characters are introduced, spends basically all of its time moving none of them forward, opting instead for a constant presence of expectation that is never fulfilled by anything actually happening. There’s a subplot involving the younger sister of Liyan spending a lot of time with Zhang, and how the members of the house begin to take it as a sign of growing affection between the two, that is thrown in for good measure, but the main plot remains perfectly standstill all the way up to the ending. The almost complete lack of a musical score only seemed to underline the stagnant nature of the plot progression.
Weirdly enough, after all I’ve just said against the film and its story, I actually did like this one. The washed-out black-and-white motif was oddly enticing, almost as if I were looking through a window into a past world, though I don’t know if that was the filmmaker’s intentions. That and the camerawork was quite likable, though the film wasn’t cut together all that well in the editing room. Really, this is a rating from me that should come with a big asterisk; I liked this, but for no real good reason, and indeed there seemed to be several reasons why I shouldn’t have liked it, but I did, so take from that what you will. I’m sure if I were given a little time to dwell on it, I could come up with a film, even a classic one, that might be better suited for the title of “greatest Chinese film ever made”, but I won’t let that take away from the experience of this one. Who knows; you might end up liking it too, but don’t come to me asking why.
Arbitrary Rating: 8/10