Spring in a Small City

Xiao cheng zhi chun, Mu Fei, China, 1948)


If one, decisive mark of a great director is his or her ability to introduce characters in a striking, economical and expressive way, then Fei Mu’s Spring in a Small City convinces a spectator of its greatness within its opening moments.


Deftly and poignantly, the film unveils to us its five central character portraits:  Zhou Yuwen, ‘The Wife’ (Wei Wei), worn down and made lonely by her daily rituals; Dai Liyan, ‘The Husband’ (Shi Yu), a sickly melancholic behind the ruined wall of his once lavish house; Dia Xiu, ‘The Sister’ (Zhang Hongmei), still youthfully vivacious and optimistic as she gathers a bonsai gift for her brother; Lao Huang, ‘The Servant’ (Cui Chaoming), wise and watchful; and eventually Zhang Zhichen, ‘The Visitor’ (Li Wei), innocently strolling into this city (and out of the past) to become the catalyst for a marital and familial shake-up.


Sparingly, the film builds its drama: the desires, hopes, dreams and hurts that play among these characters caught in the arrangement of bodies in the frame, a choreography of furtive looks, and sudden gestures of resistance or resignation. Although it has been compared to the mystical romances of Frank Borzage, it is really – if one must make a Western comparison – more on par with John Ford’s classicism of means.


But the work also has a stunningly modern side: the wife’s voice-over narration, which poetically over-describes simple acts that we see, covers events the character has not witnessed, and puts into brutal words the awfully sad realities: “I’ve lost all hope”.


This masterpiece of Chinese cinema only started to receive the worldwide recognition it deserves since the mid ‘90s, especially in the light of its evident influence on Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love (2000) – Zhou Yuwen is surely the model for Maggie Cheung’s character – and a creditable, respectful remake in 2002 by Tian Zhuangzhuang.


Alongside The Cloud-Capped Star (Ghatak, 1960), All I Desire (Sirk, 1953), Black Narcissus (Powell & Pressburger, 1946) and Letter From an Unknown Woman (Ophuls, 1948), the original Spring in a Small City stands as one of cinema’s finest, richest and most moving melodramas.

© Adrian Martin April 2003

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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