Director: Mu Fei
I had never heard of this movie before I spotted it in the library recently. Reading on the DVD case that it was chosen the best Chinese film of all time by the Hong Kong Film Critics Society in 2002, I just had to watch it. I haven't seen many films from Mainland China, and those I have seen were all made in the last twenty years or so. But I must say that this one is an unpretentious gem which deserves its status as a classic.
Spring in a Small Town—the last of only six movies directed by Mu Fei, who died in Hong Kong in 1951—seems on its surface quite simple. There are only five characters in the movie and just a handful of locations, and the plot can be summed up in a few sentences. In China just after the end of WW II a man weakened by illness (it is described at various times as tuberculosis, a heart condition, and depression), the son of a family that has lost its wealth, lives in the half-ruined family home with his unhappy wife, his 15-year old sister, and an elderly family servant. Into this placid existence comes a visitor whose presence brings the somber household to life but at the same time causes a great deal of emotional tension. The visitor, a medical doctor, is the best friend of the husband but also happens to have been the first love of the wife.
The action in the film is largely psychological and interior, and much more is suggested than openly expressed. This is a movie where an apparently calm surface conceals turmoil and unsuspected depths just underneath, where the characters' emotions are reined in and rarely revealed to one another, where the most commonplace things—unemphatic gestures, brief glances, ordinary conversations—can hold great meaning. Yet these small things evoke strong emotional responses in the viewer—no easy thing to accomplish in such a circumscribed narrative context.
Mu Fei's subdued direction shows great confidence in the power of location, situation, and acting rather than directorial flourishes to put across evocative emotions, yet in no way does the movie seem impersonal. This unobtrusive style applied to an uncomplicated story resembles in spirit the postwar humanist realism of movies like Forbidden Games, Umberto D, and Pather Panchali. The few outdoor locations are particularly well chosen. The ruined city walls where the movie opens and where characters often meet are a reminder of the isolation of these people and of the precariousness of their existence amidst encroaching decay. The river where, in an especially lovely sequence, the principal characters spend a day out boating suggests liberation from the tedium and limitation of their daily lives. In interior shots the director shows great attention to architectural pattern and detail and also great care with the atmospheric use of lighting, especially in scenes that take place at night.
Equally responsible for the film's greatness are the restrained, naturalistic performances of the three main actors, each of whom immediately establishes a dominant mood for his or her character that never wavers. As the visitor, Wei Li is a bundle of repressed conflict between the loyalty and sympathy he feels for his sick friend and the powerful emotions caused by unexpectedly encountering his first love again. Wei Wei, superb as the wife, is also torn between conflicting feelings—on the one hand resignation to the barrenness of her present life with her husband, on the other the longing for emotional fulfillment awakened by the reappearance of a more vital man from her past. Perhaps most impressive of all is Yu Shi as the sickly husband, a non-reactive man fading away from his own passivity, but acutely aware of his responsibility for his wife's disappointment and of the hopelessness of their situation. His facial expressions, his posture and bearing, his lethargic movements all deftly portray a man defeated and profoundly sad. In one poignant scene he sneaks into his wife's empty bedroom, walks to her bed, gingerly caresses her pillow for an instant, then, overcome with emotion, flees.
One final comment: The visual transfer of this movie is only fair; you have to imagine how splendid it would look in a pristine, restored state. Even so, Spring in a Small Town is so affecting and so subtly nuanced that I really can't recommend it more highly.
For another view of Spring in a Small Town read Allan Fish's excellent review at Wonders in the Dark.