Sinophiles’ Choice: Fei Mu’s Spring In A Small Town (1948) – DVD review
China’s finest? Its historical importance and allegorical strengths can’t be denied, yet today even the imaginative direction cannot override the story’s familiarity.
Spring In A Small Town
(Fei Mu, 1948)
Every nation has one: the film that the critics, both internally and internationally, think it the country’s finest achievement. For China, that honour goes to Spring In A Small Town, which topped a major survey by Chinese and Hong Kong critics in 2005, and only just missed out on a place in the Top 100 of the 2012 Sight and Sound critics’ poll.
For any film to become the standard-bearer for over a century of a nation’s cinema, it ideally needs that perfect storm of historical importance and ongoing engagement. For Spring In A Small Town, it is the context that is particularly fascinating. Here is a film at the end of China’s first major period of cinema; within a year there was a Communist Revolution, which – thanks to Chairman Mao and the Cultural Revolution – set back hopes of expanding upon it for decades. For good measure, Fei Mu died within a few years of completing this, aged only 44.
There’s a certain romantic spirit in film criticism to reclaim a film, especially one which went virtually unseen in the years after its release because the authorities didn’t like it. There’s certainly an oblique social commentary at work here, in the tale of a bored housewife with a sick husband who longs to rekindle a lost love. Set in the ruins of a once-grand home destroyed by the Sino-Japanese War, the implications are obvious: try to rebuild using the current, weak government; or seek out the return of an older rival. That the third option – find somebody completely new – doesn’t even register here, perhaps explains the Communists’ dislike. However indirect, that kind of snub has to hurt.
As an allegory of a shattered nation after wartime, then, it has plenty going for it. In many ways, it’s a postwar mirror to Jean Renoir’s La Regle Du Jeu, which similarly used a small, simple story of romantic discord to address wider concerns. Of course, the Nazis hated that, tried to suppress it, only for critics to rescue it and make it a classic of French cinema.
But does Spring In A Small Town have the irresistible timelessness that such a classic needs? This is a low key film, nuanced in terms of presenting its agonisingly repressed characters, and with a certain innovation in camera style and editing. Fei Mu’s camera tracks gracefully and subtly from one character to another, mapping out the huge emotional distances between people even when they’re standing together; similarly, he has a striking habit of including dissolves within scenes of the wife and the would-be lover, suggesting the stasis of a situation in which nobody can move on no matter how much time has passed.
And yet, ultimately, the narrative lets it down. Cinema is so littered with such love triangles that it is difficult to distinguish Spring In A Small Town as anything more than a good, if not quite great, example of its genre. Perhaps that’s unfair to a film that is over 65 years old, yet there’s a predictability to the story that Fei Mu’s direction only intensifies.