Review of Spring in a Small Town (小城之春；China, 1948), A Shanghai Wenhua Film Studio production. Released in the United States by Cinema Epoch (DVD).
Director: FEI Mu
Screenwriter: LI Tianji
Cinematographer: LI Shengwei
Editor: WEI Cunbao
Cast: SHI Yu (as DAI Liyan), WEI Wei (as ZHOU Yuwen), LI Wei (as ZHANG Zhichen), ZHANG Hongmei (as Meimei), CUI Chaoming (as Lao Huang)
Running time: 85 MIN.
Reviewed by UCI Student Kenya Wilkinson
Once censured by the Chinese Communist government for allegedly lacking sufficient political foundation, after resurfacing, Fei Mu’s Spring in a Small Town is now considered by many to be the best Chinese film of all time. Focusing on a woman who becomes emotionally distraught after being forced to suppress re-ignited feelings of attraction for her husband’s longtime friend and her secret, first and only true love, this film exquisitely tells the emotional story of yearning and restraint, ardor and regret. Mu’s clever, subtle use of props and set as a way of enriching the film with symbolism and metaphor, along with lead actress Wei Wei’s powerful performance of mastering and conveying the inner turmoil and frustration of her character through intense, almost haunting, facial expression and gesture, effectively allows this film to read as a psychological drama that explores the internalized, complex emotions of its characters, mainly those of the female protagonist, Yuwen.
Director Fei Mu skillfully manages to communicate subliminal messages to his audience regarding the characters’ emotions and the complexity of their relationships through the wise use of the set. One standout instance of the set being used as a metaphor for deeper meaning is the city wall along which Yuwen walks. Crumbling and slowly decaying, the city wall is Mu’s artistic way of subtly portraying Yuwen’s broken psychology (and figuratively depicting the damaging effects the Second World War has had on China). She is frequently seen visiting the wall and pausing to contemplate her broken, downtrodden life (at one point she even stops to consider leaping to her death). As the movie progresses and her character grows more emotionally distraught, viewers clearly see what she feels inside and what the wall looks like on the outside—devastatingly damaged—and that the wall is a poignant reflection of her inner psychology.
Like the catastrophe-stricken city wall, the equally destructed walls of the home around which the film centers are another aspect of the set that Mu uses to symbolically relate the underlying emotional and mental constitution of the characters. Representative of the broken relationship between Liyan, the morose, tuberculosis-ridden male protagonist, and his cheerless, withdrawn wife, the walls which cannot seem to be mended or brought back to standing form are rich with meaning. Furthermore, the walls also serve as a representation of Liyan’s fallen state of health. Like his relationship, his wellbeing and state of mind are slowly perishing. Despite Liyan’s efforts, no amount of work seems to be able to fix the collapsed reality surrounding him.
In addition to using the brokenness of the home’s structure to represent Liyan’s and Yuwen’s collapsed intimate connection, Mu ingeniously uses the set to introduce Zhichen, Liyan’s friend and Yuwen’s secret former love. Unable to make his entrance through one of the home’s doors, Zhichen finds his way inside through one of the holes in the wall. Mu is metaphorically saying that Zhichen moves his way inside the family dynamic through a fracture in Liyan’s and Yuwen’s relationship—that if not quickly repaired, breaches allow for unwanted problems to enter. In this case, the fallen state of the couple’s romantic relationship permits Zhichen to make his way back into Yuwen’s heart. Through the skillful use of the set, Mu artistically conveys an eye-opening underlying message.
Along with his clever use of the set, Mu powerfully uses props to symbolically communicate deep, intimate details regarding Yuwen’s character. Rich with meaning, the embroidery which Yuwen spends her time working on is an extremely valuable prop that allows viewers to understand her inner turmoil even further. The embroidery itself stands for the complexity of her feelings—they are abundantly intricate and detailed. She does not simply suffer from sadness—she is overwhelmed with a sense of hopelessness, entrapment, deep-rooted pain, guilt, and insanity-causing monotonousness. The needle with which she pierces the delicate fabric is also equally symbolic. Yuwen’s past feelings of attraction and affection toward the handsome doctor as well as her present-day sense of confinement, lifelessness, and responsibility toward Liyan are the needles which pierce her at her core. Her heart, like the fabric, is penetrated by feelings of regret and shame after her passions are aroused through Zhichen’s visit. At one point when she is speaking to Zhichen regarding her love for him, she goes as far as voicing that the only way she will ever be able to follow her heart and be with him, her true love, is if Liyan dies. Moments like this substantiate the claim that, at her core, she is overwhelmed by feelings of remorse and deals with incredibly complex emotions. The embroidery boldly communicates these ideas metaphorically.
The basket which Yuwen carries with her as she walks along the city wall is equally loaded with symbolism. Mu uses this prop to figuratively say that Yuwen’s responsibility is to hold everything together. Regardless of her impulse to commit suicide so that she can escape her mundane life or her desires to give in to her erotic sentiments toward Zhichen, she must hold her emotions together and maintain a composed demeanor. The basket is important, because when she visits the city wall—a place of escape, dreaming, longing, and realization—instead of being able to let her feelings flow freely, she maintains a tight grip of the basket, symbolic for suppressing her sentiments. Through the subtle, shrewd use of props, Mu is able to powerfully convey a strong sense of symbolism and add another layer of complexity and cinematic artistry to the film.
While Mu’s clever use of set and props adds depth and meaning to the already complex picture, what truly sends chills down viewers’ backs and makes it clear that this film is an inner exploration of human psychology and emotion is lead actress Wei Wei’s powerful performance. Yuwen’s deep-rooted, intricate sentiments are conveyed through concentrated, captivating facial expression and gesture. Despite the fact that she never fully voices her true feelings of sexual attraction for Zhichen, the deep gazes and seductive smiles that she sends him throughout the movie are bold indications that her erotic sentiments toward him have undoubtedly been re-aroused. The sexual tension between these two characters is absolutely exhilarating. Her eyes beautifully tell the story of how, because of her morally strict Chinese culture, she is forced to contain her passionate desires and remain true to her wifely duties—regardless of her unhappiness—and her seductively tinted lips serve to accentuate her suppressed sensual side. Adding to Wei Wei’s moving performance are her subtle, yet stimulating gestures. Her internalized turmoil and longing to voice her heart’s desires is seen through the constant wringing of her hands. Yuwen is continually seen tightly gripping her hands in extreme tension. The energy that she pours into making every gaze and every gesture noticed is enthralling—it grabs viewers’ emotions and creates a sense of heightened anxiety. It is as if her hands are like magnets, holding together her emotions and her innermost yearnings. Her gestures are so strongly symbolic and charged, that it seems that if she were to let go of her tightly held hands, she would simply implode and lose all composure. Her haunting facial expressions and intense gestures brilliantly display the psychology of her character and keep viewers on the edges of their seat.
Ultimately, Fei Mu’s Spring in a Small Town elegantly manages to flow like poetry on film. With a beautiful, lyrical feel and underlying gripping symbolism, it is no wonder why it is considered to be the best Chinese film ever made. Ingeniously using the set and cleverly incorporating powerful props, Mu manages to deliver a bold metaphorical message and bringing excitement and tension to the screen. Wei Wei’s performance demands the viewers’ attention and undoubtedly helps make this film a cinematic success.