Spring in a Small Town (1948, Fei Mu)

It’s post-war China and Yuwen (Wei Wei) is suffering from a bout of ennui. Her relationship to her perpetually ill husband, Liyan (Yu Shi), has stagnated and when she isn’t looking after Liyan and their daughter, retreats into her own thoughts.

The house is injected with life once again when Liyan’s childhood friend, Zhang (Li Wei), pays them a visit. Liyan is unaware, however, that Zhang is a former lover of Yuwen and the listless housewife must confront her feelings for Zhang against her sense of loyalty to her husband. It is disappointing to see that the performances are stiff and do not appear to have held up very well over the decades.

Spring in a Small Town is a simple film rich with symbolism. The destroyed wall of the town that the characters frequently walk along suggests a melancholy, a yearning to break free of one’s confines and designated roles in society. The family home ruined in the war that never seems as if it will be fixed points to an inert relationship cracked beyond repair – its deep rooted problems ignored to be addressed some other day. The complex embroidery that Yuwen is forever working on and her inner monologues hints at a women full of complexity brimming just beneath her inactive surface.

Fei Mu often makes use of silence – Spring in a Small Town is a very quiet experience and it is appropriately gauged. The film is about suppression of feelings, about regret and longing – it might be the least dramatic melodrama I have ever seen. The deafening silence coupled with lyrical images gives Spring in a Small Town a haunting quality.

It feels fleeting, as if there’s more story to be filmed, more that needs to be said, but then that’s how things are sometimes. Sometimes two people meant for each other continue on their separate paths for reasons that may not feel satisfying. One of the film’s great strengths is that Mu never makes judgements on any of the characters.

The subsequent influences are pronounced and obvious. It’s Brief Encounter mixed with In The Mood For Love with a dash of Antonioni. Spring in a Small Town has long been bettered by films dealing with similar themes, but it is an important work so I am delighted to see it finally get a credible release in the UK. (7)

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