“Spring in a Small Town” - Fei Mu (1948)

Spring in a Small Town (Xiao chéng zhī chūn, 1948), though long neglected, is now seen as one of China’s greatest  films.  In fact the 2005 the Hong Kong Film Awards Association named it the greatest Chinese film ever made [1].  Directed by Fei Mu during the brief reflourishing of the Chinese film industry in Shanghai after the devastating Sino-Japanese War (1937-45) and before the Maoist takeover in 1949, the film was early on dismissed by the Communist authorities for its supposedly bourgeois subject matter.  In fact when the Communists took over, Fei fled to Hong Kong where he died shortly thereafter in 1951 at the age of forty-four.  Spring in a Small Town was his last film.

The film’s early neglect was presumably due to its supposed eschewal of gritty socialist realism (which was the dominant art culture among socialist countries in those days) and for its pursual instead of sentimental melodrama [2].  But today we can see that Spring in a Small Town operates on a higher plane and is a superb expression of universal feelings about love and family commitments.

However, even though the film concerns universal feelings and hesitations about the demands of love, it can be even more appreciated if we keep in mind the then ravaged conditions of Chinese society.  These provide an unspoken but powerful backdrop to what goes on in the story. The horrific annihilation brought about by the Sino-Japanese War is almost unimaginable for us today, and the Chinese suffered the worst of it.  The most authoritative estimate from historian Rana Mitter puts the Chinese death toll at 15-20 million people, with more than 90 million people made homeless [3].  The Japanese military’s “Three Alls Policy”, alone, is said to have to led to the deaths of 2.7 million civilians [4].  And “the property loss suffered by the Chinese was valued at 383 billion US dollars according to the currency exchange rate in July 1937, roughly 50 times the gross domestic product of Japan at that time (US$7.7 billion).” [5]. 

So it is no wonder that two of Spring in a Small Town’s main characters, having seen such ruination, suffer from depression concerning the what may have seemed to be the hopelessness of life. Nevertheless, evidence of these aspects of horrific ruination is all only in the background and so are only obliquely alluded to in the film.

The story of Spring in a Small Town concerns a married woman whose life is disrupted when a man whom she had loved in the past comes for an extended visit at her homestead.  Not surprisingly, the man’s visit revives her old romantic feelings, since this man was her one true love.  In this regard the film can be compared to some outstanding, similarly-themed films that were made by three cinematic masters across the globe: David Lean’s Brief Encounter (1948), Satyajit Ray’s Kapurush (1965), and Wong Kar Wai’s In the Mood for Love (2000).  The closest narrative match is to that of Kapurush, but all four films concerns the tentative considerations of adulterous love.  Spring in a Small Town not only belongs in this grouping but may be the best of them all.

A key feature of Spring in a Small Town is the understated mise-en-scene of Fei Mu.  As I have been reminded by my Chinese friends, traditional Chinese social culture is essentially a “no touch” society.  Social gestures are traditionally restrained, particularly with respect to physical interactions.  In this connection Fei’s camera accordingly maintains (mostly) a respectful distance.  There are many medium long shots and long shots, with few closeups.  In addition there are a number of sequences with limited dialogue, where the emphasis is more on the modest, subtle gestures and expressions of the players concerned. The occasional voiceovers remind us that the story is primarily a contemplative recollection on the part of the main character, Zhou Yuwen.  But the use of voiceover is restrained, and Fei Mu expressed through physical gestures what was probably more explicitly articulated in the original story by Li Tianji.  The feeling of internal, impressionistic consciousness is further enhanced by Fei’s extensive use of dissolves instead of cuts to connect shots depicted in the film.

The story has only five characters and takes place almost entirely at the residence of the Dai family.  Although it comprises a gradually flowing stream of scenes involving these characters, I break the story into four phases.  To trace the back-and-forth momentum associated with the uncertain relationship between the two main players, I employ some symbolic indicators.  Places were the main female character, Yuwen, is making subtle encouraging gestures towards romantic involvement I identify with “(Y+)”, whereas when she is doubtful and  making discouraging gestures, I use “(Y-)”.  Similar signage is used for her would-be romantic partner, Zhichen.

1.  Introducing the characters
The first phase is mostly described in voiceover.  The opening shot shows Zhou Yuwen (played by Wei Wei) walking pensively outside along the city’s ruined wall.  This wall was not destroyed in the war but is a vestige from ancient times and serves as something of a visual metaphor in the film for the boundary separating domestic communal life from the complexities of the outside world.  Yuwen describes in voiceover her unsatisfactory married life with her husband Dai Liyan (Shi Yu), who is the last remaining proprietor of a once-prosperous landed estate.  The estate’s manor house was destroyed during the war, and they live in a humble cottage there that is attended to only by a single, long-time family servant, Lao Huang (Cui Chaoming).  Liyan is perpetually depressed and believes (though Yuwen thinks it is all in his mind) that he is dying from tuberculosis.  He spends his time alone, moping around the ruined estate and occasionally expressing his despondency.  As Yuwen summarizes their plight,
“I have no courage to die.  He seems to have no courage to live.”
Even Liyan realizes the hopelessness of their relationship and says to her,
“I don’t know whether it’s better if you leave me or I leave you.”
Yuwen indicates that she lives and sleeps apart from her husband and barely exchanges any words with him.  She does attend to her wifely duties, though, like going out to buy food and medicine.  Also living with them is Liyan’s young sister, Xiu, who is approaching her sixteenth birthday.  Unlike Liyan and Yuwen, who are both depressed, Xiu is a vibrant teenager full of youthful energy. 

Into this setting comes a former classmate and old friend of Liyan, Zhang Zhichen (Li Wei), who has returned to the village after being away for ten years.  While Liyan is steeped in the past, Zhichen is a modernist – he is now a medical doctor and is always clad in a Western coat and tie.  When Liyan introduces Zhichen to his wife, they immediately, but silently, recognize a fact unbeknownst to Liyan – that they were once lovers back when Zhichen lived in the area,.  Not knowing anything about the former passion between Zhichen and Yuwen, Liyan warmly insists that his old friend stay with them for awhile so that he and Zhichen can renew their acquaintance.

2. Zhichen’s approaches
Zhichen is given a separate, externally-accessed bedroom in the compound, and when Yuwen comes there to give him a water pitcher, he invites her to sit down and chat.  When he touches her hand (Z+), they both freeze for a second and then proceed as if it were nothing.  She tells him that because of the war ravages, electric power is limited and there are scheduled power outages every night.  These nightly periods of darkness will, of course, add to the romantic atmosphere of subsequent evening encounters.

The next day they all go on an outing together, including rowing down a small river together on a rowboat, while Xiu sings to them.  Again Zhichen surreptitiously touches Yuwen’s hand while they are walking together (Z+).  Later Zhichen asks Yuwen to make up an excuse to her husband so they can meet again outside at the village wall and talk (Z+).  At the wall Zhichen asks her if she wants to do some trivial activities with him, in response to each of which she responds, “whatever you like”.  Finally they have the following exchange:
Zhichen: “If I asked you to run away with me, would you still say ‘whatever you like’?” (Z+)

Yuwen: “Do you really mean that?” ( Y+)

Zhichen: [silence] (Z-)
This is the first time that the previously unresponsive Yuwen gives a more positive response.  Now she becomes more active in this connection.

3.  Yuwen’s approaches
Since Zhichen is a doctor, he gives Liyan a physical examination and concludes that he is not really ill but has a weak heart.  During the examination, Liyan privately complains to Zhichen that Yuwen is dutiful but cold to him.  He asks Zhichen to talk to her about this and see what he can do.  Later when Zhichen is alone with Yuwen, he dutifully brings up topic of her marriage, and she tells him about her history with Liyan.  At the end of their conversation, she tells Zhichen,
“My heart is yours, but I feel sorry for Liyan”. (Y+)    
 . . .
“What are we going to do?” (Y+)
Time passes, and it is now the ninth day of Zhichen’s visit.  Xiu is clearly attracted to Zhichen  and finds excuses to spend flirtatious time with him.  This arouses Yuwen’s silent jealously, and she becomes more sulky than ever.  Finally Yuwen comes to Zhichen’s room at night and provocatively turns off his room light (Y+).  Zhichen turns it back on (Z-) and scolds her for coming to him behind Liyan’s back (Z-).  This brings Yuwen to tears (Y+).

Later when Liyan and Yuwen have one of their brief meetings, Liyan, who is still ignorant of the attraction between Zhichen and his wife, tells her to fix up a marriage arrangement between Zhichen and Xiu.  Worried, Yuwen arranges another meeting with Zhichen at the city wall. 

The presentation of their conversation at the wall is interesting, because shots within the conversation are linked with dissolves, suggesting that their conversation lasts longer than what is shown on film. During their talk Zhichen recalls the time he left her, when Yuwen was only sixteen (like Xiu now), and he regrets that he didn’t have a matchmaker back then or know how to find one.  Yuwen responds by complaining why he didn’t have the gumption to do it and marry her.  But then she adds (Y-),
“I have my own conflicts.  I don’t know if I want to go away with you anyway.”
Zhichen then grabs hold of her (Z+), but she runs away from him. 

After this there is an interlude with the celebration of Xiu’s sixteenth birthday.  At the party they all start drinking too much alcohol and playing drinking-party hand games like rock-paper-scissors.  Amid the frivolity Xiu notices Zhichen woozily seeking to hold Yuwen’s hand.

Later that evening during the power outage, the still-inebriated Yuwen dresses up and bravely goes to Zhichen’s room (Y+).  Zhichen blocks her at the doorway (Z-), but she shoulders her way past him and enters the room.  When she tries to kiss him, he picks her up in his arms, and she again leans forward to kiss him (Z+,Y+). But the conflicted Zhichen can’t go through with it, and he puts her down in a chair and runs outside (Z-).  After further conflict between the two of them, Yuwen returns disconsolately to her room.

4.  Coming to a head
Liyan, who throughout the story remains a decent man, can’t help noticing Yuwen’s increased vitality whenever Zhichen is around.  He finally nobly tells her that Zhichen is better for her than he is.  And then he asks her if she is still in love with Zhichen.  She becomes tearful, but doesn’t say.

By now the conflict between love and duty has become unbearable for all of them.  Both Liyan and Yuwen contemplate suicide, while Zhichen tells Liyan that he is going to go away the next day.  Liyan’s attempt to overdose with sleeping pills is thwarted by Zhichen’s anticipatory substitution of the sleeping pills with vitamin pills, but Liyan suffers a heart attack anyway and passes out.  Seeing her unconscious husband makes Yuwen burst into tears, as she is overcome with guilt.  But later Liyan revives, much to everyone’s relief. 

Afterwards Xiu, who has had more of a chance to observe the couple’s subtle interactions, asks Yuwen if she and Zhichen are in love.  And Yuwen admits to her that it is true.

The next morning Xiu and Lao Huang accompany the departing Zhichen to the train station.  Meanwhile in the closing shot, Yuwen is back walking along the city wall.  This time, though, in what suggests a possible reconciliation, Liwan hobbles along and joins up with her.

Much of what makes Spring in a Small Town an effective work centers around the silent, soulful expressions of Wei Wei in the role of Yuwen.  She always gives the impression of masking deeper feelings behind a seemingly impassive gaze, and her performance is magical.  And the visual presentation of this heartfelt longing is where Fei Mu’s camera rhythms work their own magic. 

Similar to Wong Kar Wai’s In the Mood for Love, Fei’s film sustains a mood of people being on the knife-edge of surrendering to amorous passion, not just for a brief moment but for much of the film.  But Fei’s depiction may be even more subtle than Wong’s – his characters seem to have turbulent feelings that they, themselves, can’t even understand, much less articulate.  This demonstrates the profound power of film expression. It is in connection with the mysterious and magical feeling of love that the film medium can offer deep expressiveness beyond the possibilities of the written word.  And this is what Fei’s film accomplishes.

The ending of Spring in a Small Town may suggest some sort of resigned resolution.  The inhibitions and moral sentiments of Zhichen and Yuwen seem to have led them to withdraw from their longed-for passionate engagement. So it appears that they are finally resigned to adhering to their traditional social conventions.  But is this true?  Even here Fei’s presentation is not so simple as that.  There may still be an opening for true love at the close of the film.  At the end when Lao Huang and Xiu are saying good-bye to Zhichen, they ask him when he will return to  their small town.  And he responds with, “next spring”.

  1. “‘Spring in a Small Town’ tops best 100 Chinese films in HK”, SINA English, (15 March 2005).   
  2. Roderick Heath, “Spring in a Small Town (1948)”, Ferdy on Films, (2015).   
  3. Richard Overy, “China's War with Japan, 1937-1945: The Struggle for Survival by Rana Mitter – review”, The Guardian, (6 June 2013). 
  4. “Three Alls Policy”, Wikipedia, (14 August 2016).   
    • “In a study published in 1996, historian Mitsuyoshi Himeta claims that the Three Alls Policy, sanctioned by Emperor Hirohito himself, was both directly and indirectly responsible for the deaths of ‘more than 2.7 million’ Chinese civilians.“
  5. “Second Sino-Japanese War”, Wikipedia, (11 February 2017).    

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