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Film Review
Springtime in a Small Town
by Shelly Kraicer
Tian Zhuangzhuang’s Springtime in a Small Town heralds the long-anticipated return of one of China’s leading fifth-generation filmmakers. Tian, along with his Beijing Film Academy cinematography department classmates Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige, revitalized Chinese cinema in the mid-1980s, giving it an international profile that continues to generate exposure and acclaim and garner international film awards today. Although Springtime’s San Marco Prize was awarded in the Venice Biennale’s Controcorrente (Upstream competition) for “innovative” or non-mainstream works, Tian’s new film in fact looks very familiar: a sedate, subtle, elegant, gorgeously-crafted, mature drama of barely-constrained passion concealed beneath an extravagantly crafted shell, not too far removed from Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Flowers of Shanghai (1998), or Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood For Love (2000).


Tian burst onto the new wave Chinese cinema scene in the politically-charged mid-1980s with two difficult, experimental films set among minority communities—a semi-documentary on Inner Mongolia’s nomadic hunters On the Hunting Ground (1985), and a Tibetan mythical-religious paean Horse Thief (1986). He went on to make a series of inconsequential commercial pictures—a disco-craze dance musical Rock ‘n Roll Kids and a stiff international costume epic Li Lianying: the Imperial Eunuch.

Soon after the 1989 Tiananmen Incident Tian Zhuangzhuang clashed with Mainland film authorities over his semi-autobiographical The Blue Kite (Lanse Fengzheng), a daringly bold tale of a family’s survival through the horrors of Mao’s China. The Blue Kite was filmed and launched in 1991 at the Directors’ Fortnight in Cannes against the orders of the Chinese Film Bureau. The film went on to win numerous awards at many film festivals. The Blue Kite was voted one of the best films of the year by Time magazine and Tian Zhuangzhuang was acclaimed the best Chinese director ever. Although it became something of an international art house hit, it was never authorized by Mainland film authorities, and the director was banned from making films for three years, a hiatus which stretched to six more years of self-imposed creative silence, during which Tian worked as a producer at the Beijing Film Studio.

Springtime in a Small Town picks no quarrels with the Film Bureau. It is a remake of what might be the greatest—certainly the most revered—Chinese film of all time, Fei Mu’s 1948 masterpiece Spring in a Small Town (also titled in Chinese Xiao cheng zhi chun). The stories of the two films are almost identical. Set just after World War II, a sickly young landlord, Liyan, lives in a decaying courtyard house with his wife Yuwen, his sister, and their old servant. Liyan receives an unexpected visit from former university buddy Zhiwen, now a medical doctor. Zhiwen is surprised to encounter Yuwen, with whom he was in love before the war. Zhiwen’s short visit is marked by dangerous eruptions of barely concealed passion as the situation rapidly becomes dangerously unstable. As former passions rekindle, modern romance threatens traditional bonds of loyalty.

Fei Mu’s original film activates this melodramatic premise with a daringly modernist style, deploying avant-garde techniques in a subtle and entirely original way. The film’s most innovative feature is Yuwen’s strikingly modernistic voiceover, a half-whispered, half-incanted stream-of-consciousness that complicates and poeticizes the entire narrative. This narrator’s voice, though clearly identified with Yuwen, is not fixed in any particular time; sometimes it anticipates action about to occur, sometimes it looks back omnisciently, sometimes it wonders, uncertainly, what is about to happen. Moreover, the film presents a split perspective, its text and its gaze often at odds. Though the voiceover is Yuwen’s, the gaze seems to be Liyan’s. The camera generally observes the action from a very low angle, identifying it with Liyan’s (mostly bedridden) point of view. Fei’s editing also draws attention to itself: he often prefers dissolves to cuts, going so far as to dissolve between shots within scenes. These techniques all destabilize what might otherwise be a theatrical, melodramatic text: Fei’s use of actors from Shanghai theatre, rather than cinema, underlines the literary feel of the screenplay. The actors’ powerful, acutely nuanced performances (especially Wei Wei’s portrayal of Yuwen, which weds incandescence to quiet control, expressed through her minutely subtle changes of expression and slow-motion gestures) both play up the fastidiously controlled “stagedness” of the action, and probe deeply enough into their characters to give the film an entirely unprecedented feel of psychological realism.

remake preserves the long, carefully designed takes, hauntingly dark atmosphere, and stealthily increasing tension of the original, it rejects every element of Fei Mu’s avant-garde style. No narrator, no dissolves, no fixed low camera. Tian replaces these with an almost continuously mobile, gently gliding camera that tracks and pans laterally (the film’s cinematographer, Mark Lee, used a similar but more flexible version of this style in Flowers of Shanghai). This technique is derived from the central party scene of the original, where Fei used carefully planned camera movement to specifically isolate different pairings of characters as the complex dynamics of the scene unfolded. But Tian and Lee generalize the style to cover all of their interior scenes, creating elegant surface effects rather than anything specifically expressive. The new actors, too seem a bit constricted by the classic outlines of their characters, and rarely dig as alarmingly deeply into their roles as the cast of the original.

In purely stylistic terms, Tian replaces the subversive modernity of 1948 with a traditional, almost classical film language. The absence of a chronologically mobile narrator and the suppression of the original’s multiple points of view pushes the film’s genre from psychological drama to romantic melodrama. Tian seems to be turning a radical commentary on China’s breakdown into a nostalgic celebration of a lost perfect past. The resulting jewel, though splendidly graceful, is merely decorous and oddly lifeless, like an heirloom sealed in amber.

But there is much more than simple nostalgia behind the director’s invocation of this key classic of Chinese cinema. I would suggest that Springtime deserves to be read as an active, urgent intervention into a contemporary Chinese political dilemma. It engages at a thematic and symbolical level to try and heal a violent rupture in Chinese culture: the chasm that Liberation (1949) and the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) opened between contemporary Chinese culture and its traditional past. The PRC’s double revolution was radically disruptive: ideologically and in everyday life, it proposed a complete break with the thoughts, culture, and practices of China’s traditional past. Classical culture was to be sealed off, denounced, and made inaccessible. Once Maoism collapsed, several generations of Chinese found themselves in a social, cultural, and moral vacuum, without any traditional foundation: newly forged values evaporated, and old values remained inaccessible.

Springtime takes on the project of reattaching the present to the past by bridging chasms, healing wounds. Several kinds of painful ruptures mark the film’s text: the gulf in the original story between pre- and post-war China and the vast emotional space between the characters’ pre- and post-war selves. It is easy to read the original as a lightly coded metaphor for China’s postwar situation: amidst the ruins of the old (the ruined mansion, traditionally dressed Liyan’s failing health) comes an opportunity to turn and embrace the modern (Western-suited Zhiwen, trained in medicine). At the same time, Yuwen is confronted with the challenge of bridging the gulf between her married self and her earlier persona, still in love with Zhiwen. The key question becomes one of lost access to the past: is the present, cut off from its past, condemned to wander, lost and aimless, in unrelieved pain? Or is the cost of reattaching to the past even greater suffering?

Images of separation permeate the new film’s symbolic structure. The massive ruined city wall haunts the new film as a visual leitmotif. In Springtime’s most strikingly beautiful image, a very low camera views Yuwen and Zhiwen high above, silhouetted on top of the city wall, teetering on the edge of a fearfully huge barrier, contemplating the courage to cross it. At its dramatic peak, Yuwen, locked in a room, cuts her hand while smashing through the glass panel of a door: a barrier is violated, at great cost.

In autobiographical terms, Springtime is Tian’s successful gesture of artistic renewal, by which he forges a connection between a creative present and his past interrupted career. On the first day of shooting, cast and crew witnessed the director pause and embrace the tree built on the set of the old house’s courtyard. As he burst into tears, he cried out “I’ve come home, I’ve come home.” In Springtime’s final scene, Liyan nurtures the same tree, pruning away an old branch to prepare for the growth of the new, nurtured from the same roots. Tian’s radical devotion to the value of continuous tradition is precisely what leads him to abjure the avant-garde stylistics of the original in favor of a self-consciously classicizing style, one that asserts a continuity with past Chinese film culture and, on a personal level, represents a rhapsodic homecoming.

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