Fei Mu’s Spring in a Small Town is often regarded as one of the great lost masterpieces of Chinese cinema. Completed in 1948, it stands on the borderline of China’s transformation into a communist state and ultimately paid the price for its “questionable” politics (or indeed a lack of them). Fei, like many at the time, relocated to Hong Kong where he set up a production company but sadly died not long after at just 44 years of age; thus Spring in a Small Town became his final film. Based on a short story by Li Tianji, the film is a complex portrait of frustrated hopes and failed marriages against the backdrop of a society in rapid change.
Yuwen is a married woman who lives for her daily errands which take her out of the decaying house she shares with her invalid husband and his school-aged younger sister. Her one pleasure in life is the solitary walk she’s accustomed to take along the ruined wall which leads into town. Her husband, Liyan, believes himself to be suffering from tuberculosis and confines himself to what remains of their estate and its once fine garden. The house is little more than rubble in places and bears the heavy scars of the war years on its un-repaired exteriors. One day, an old friend of Liyan’s, Zhang - a doctor - comes to visit. Unbeknownst to anyone, Zhang and Yuwen grew up in the same village and were, in fact, childhood sweethearts until time and circumstance forced them apart.
Shot through with Chekhovian melancholy resignation (but perhaps without his trademark sense of humour), Spring in a Small Town is a tightly-wound character drama which uses the plight of its characters to deliver a much wider message. Yuwen narrates her inner life for us (a stylish device which anticipates the technique coming into its prime nearly twenty years later in the French New Wave), giving voice to thoughts that could never be expressed directly. Her unhappiness is the first thing that strikes the viewer along with the decayed grandeur of her surroundings. Having become more nurse than wife to a husband that she never loved, Yuwen has resigned herself to a life of morning walks and embroidery devoid of all stimulation. Zhang’s unexpected re-entry into her life spells both doom and salvation. Liyan suspects nothing and even sees Zhang as a potential match for his sixteen year old sister, Xiang! Zhang’s arrival threatens to throw a hand grenade into this delicately balanced yet unhappy household, with long-buried emotions slowly working their way to the surface.
Fei keeps the tension up by keeping a tight lid on the repressed emotions of the time. What could so easily have become an overwrought melodrama retains its emotional power precisely because of its naturalistic restraint. Spring in a Small Town has been described as “the Chinese Brief Encounter” and it certainly shares something of that film’s powerful emotional manoeuvring, pushed through with a level of reserve many would consider typically British. Both films also resolutely reinforce the prevailing social order of the day, where duty conquers all and properness comes before personal happiness. However, where Brief Encounter ends on a note of melancholic restoration, Spring in a Small Town dares to be a little more upbeat (if still just as melancholic) with a sense that spring may really have returned to these four people after a long and hard winter. The frost has finally thawed and new life can begin again.
It’s not completely clear what exactly the new regime found problematic about Spring in a Small Town, though it’s certainly a long way from socialist realist cinema. The world it depicts is an upper class one with not a little sorrow over the decline of this once noble house and fretting about its legacy, neither of which gel very well with communist party guidelines. Otherwise the film is fairly apolitical which would render it a little frivolous from their point of view, but far from trivial in ours. Enormously influential since its rediscovery by the Fifth Generation filmmakers in the 1980s, Spring in a Small Town is a gloriously melancholic character study that deserves to finally take its rightful place alongside the finest romantic dramas the golden age of cinema has to offer.