Spring in a Small Town
(Xiao cheng zhi chun)
Andrew F. Jones is a UC Berkeley professor who teaches modern Chinese literature and media culture.
Wei Wei, Shi Yu, Li Wei, Zhang Hong Mei,
Named a formative influence by filmmakers like Wong Kar-wai and Zhang Yimou, voted the best Chinese film of all time in a poll of Chinese critics, and with a visual panache often compared to Ophuls, Antonioni, and Welles, Fei Mu’s 1948 gem possesses a melancholy beauty all its own. In the ruins of a bombed-out country estate, a sorrowful husband lives in the past, while his beautiful wife pines for something, anything, to change. “I don’t have the courage to die,” she whispers in the film’s mesmeric, noirish voice-over, “and he doesn’t have the courage to live.” As in many a noir, the arrival of an outsider—one known to both husband and wife—may change everything. Made a year before Mao’s People’s Republic of China was proclaimed, the film’s beauty exists both in time—many elements seem drawn from Hollywood noir and the glory years of Shanghai cinema, while its languorous tracking shots rival the best of Ophuls—and utterly out of time, with a romantic splendor and a remarkable sense of melancholy capable of surprising even the most jaded contemporary filmgoer. The fact that the film was quickly hidden away after its debut, condemned as counterrevolutionary and embodying “petit-bourgeois decadence,” merely adds to the film’s mystique; it was finally rediscovered in the 1980s.