"Spring in a Small Town" dir. Fei Mu

In a town so small it seems to be made up of only one tiny family, the bored Yuwen walks the deserted, ancient walls as long and as often as possible, trying to forget her marriage to the sickly Liyan, whom she has never loved. Liyan spends his days moping about the garden of his crumbling house, in despair that his family’s fortune and power have declined so far under his feeble stewardship, snapping at his sprightly schoolgirl sister and trying in vain to have heart-to-hearts with his increasingly cold wife.

A thaw spreads through the household with the visit of Liyan’s childhood friend Zhichen, now a doctor, who, we soon find, has an equally affectionate history with every member of the household, although the affection takes different forms of amorousness. While Liyan fondly plans to marry his friend off to his young sister, after a suitable number of years, it gradually becomes clear to him (and, much more rapidly, to us) that Zhichen has considerably more interest in Yuwen, who was the doctor’s neighbor growing up, and whom he should have married. A complex dance between desire and honor ensues, complicated by a profound affection (read “sexual tension”) between Zhichen and Liyan, as well as between both men and Yuwen.

Although I have only jumped back about ten years in my progress through the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list in order to see this film (having just discovered its availability on Netflix), the historical gap seems much longer, as if this really should be a silent movie, with all that era’s symbolic expansiveness of gesture. When I called the plot a “complex dance between desire and honor,” I meant it literally as well as metaphorically: much of the movie occurs in silence, and gesture acquires an almost balletic importance.

The orientation of the actors’ bodies to one another and to the camera are often fascinatingly unconventional. In one scene, Yuwen circles around the front of Liyan (who holds her by the hand) in a wide arc, eclipsing him as she passes between him and the camera with her back turned to us. I can’t think of another film off the top of my head that did this with the planes of space between us/the camera and the characters’ faces. In another scene, Zhichen stands on a low wall, towering above Liyan, who holds his hand affectionately and begs him not to leave the house (the doctor’s morals have been making him skittish). The hushed, gestural (rather than vocal or verbal) quality of the film emphasizes the furtive nature of the plot, in which anxious caresses are exchanged behind locked doors with glass panels and great care is taken not to disturb the calm of Liyan’s sickroom. So too does the wonderful voiceover by Wei Wei, who plays Yuwen, in which she seems to be whispering breathless poetry to us behind the backs of all the characters, including her own.

Perhaps the strangest and most disconcerting of Spring’s filmic techniques is Fei Mu’s habit of changing “scenes” without moving the camera. In other words, a shot will come to an end in the middle of a dramatic scene (a single dialogue between two characters, for instance, taking place in a single stretch of dramatic time), and when the new shot begins the camera will have remained stationary, the stage setting will still be the same, but the actors will have moved during the cut from shot to shot. My poor education in cinematic art leaves me unaware of any term there might be for this technique – so if you know, I would love to hear about it.

Spring in a Small Town was released in 1948, and Fei Mu died only a few years later in 1951. The film was banned for many years in China, perhaps for its frankness about adultery, perhaps for its implicit individualism. In 2002, however, after a long enforced hiatus from filmmaking following The Blue Kite, Chinese director Tian Zhuangzhuang remade Spring in what is apparently an impressive film in its own right. I look forward to seeing it. Despite a certain wooden theatricality (by no means a bad word in my lexicon) that accompanied my sense that Fei Mu’s film belonged to an earlier era, this emerged as a delicate, lovely film and an affectionate narrative of gestures.

Spring in a Small Town
dir. Fei Mu