SPRINGTIME IN A SMALL TOWN
In 1946, soon after the defeated Japanese have withdrawn from China, life returns to nearly normal in a small town, where Dai Liyan (Wu Jun) is the last remaining male member of the Dai family. He lives in his slightly dilapidated rambling family home with his 16 year old sister Xiu (Lu Sisi) and the old family servant Lao Huang (Ye Xiao Keng), and his wife of eight years, Yuwen (Hu Ying Fan). But they’ve slept in separate rooms since his illness – suspected tuberculosis – has weakened him. Out of the blue, a visitor arrives, and turns out to be Zhang Zhichen (Xin Bai Qing), Liyan’s old schoolfriend, now a doctor in Shanghai. Zhichen is surprised to find Liyan married to his pretty neighbour, who had a crush on him before he left. His presence stirs emotions and memories and has a dramatic effect on the entire household.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
As vibrant as a live play in its impact, with its characters almost as tangible, this film draws on not just the words and emotions of the original material, but the classic language of earlier cinema, rediscovering gossamer fine threads leading to the human heart. Restraint in all things heightens the emotional impetus. With its quiet intensity and tangible characters, Springtime in a Small Town is a sublime work on all levels, so precise in its sense of place and time as to be unforgettable. The charred ruins of a bombed building in the lane where the Dai ancestral home is situated remind us of the destroyed past and damaged present, both politically and socially; and yes, perhaps personally for the three central characters.
But in this love triangle, the dynamics defy expectations, emotions sometimes making U turns, something every one of us can understand. The film’s opening scenes are beautifully edited to convey everything we need to know and feel, with glowing images. Initial scenes between the sickly Liyan and the dutiful Yuwen seem stiff and unnatural, until their distance is explained bit by bit, moment by moment, repressed tear by telling glance. Wonderful moments around the old home create a genuine understanding of the physical environment, and we are drawn into this small, private world echoing silently with the white noise of private history and common culture. Into this deflated world steps the smartly dressed, handsome and urbane Zhichen, personalising the spring that is drawing blossoms from the trees. The first to bloom is Liyan himself, smiling again, happy to see his good friend after 10 years. His little sister (Lu Sisi is superb) is turning 16, and she is instantly energised by the visitor. But for Yuwen, his impact is confusing, complex and contradictory – yet strong, urging, compelling. This inner turmoil, matched by Zhichen’s own inner conflicts, and how they subsequently seep out and affect the five of them in the household, is the invisible, sensory stuff of which the film is made. The resolution is unexpected and profoundly moving, not only by its nature, but by the way Zhuangzhuang turns it into haunting cinema.
Review by Richard Kuipers:
Beautifully crafted and superbly performed, Springtime In A Small Town is melodrama of the highest and most heartwrenching order. This is director Tian Zhuangzhuang's first film since the glorious Blue Kite (1992) earned him a stint in artistic exile for its anti-Maoist sentiments. Watching this new film and recalling his majestic 1985 work Horse Thief makes a strong case for Tian being regarded as one of the greatest of all so-called 'Fifth Generation' Chinese filmmakers.
This remake of the Li Tianji story originally filmed in 1948 is located in meticulously defined physical and emotional spaces. The house Dai Liyan lives in is a relic in both senses. Spared destruction by fire during the Japanese occupation only by a fortuitous downpour, it now serves as host to the stultifying boredom of Yuwen whose marriage amounts to little more than a death watch over her husband. Almost every scene takes place in an enclosed environment that has been exquisitely designed and lit to enhance the emotional territory in each of its rooms.
From its sunny courtyard to Zhang Zhichen's bedroom that looks out to the night sky and Dai's funereal living quarters, this place exerts its own very forceful personality on proceedings. Apart from a scene in which Zhang visits Dai Xiu's school, there is virtually no evidence of the outside world; almost everything is contained within the walls of the once-magnificent house. Tian elicits superbly controlled performances from the entire cast who make this chamber piece sizzle furiously beneath their restraint. As the flame between Yuwen and Zhang ignites more brightly so do the moral questions their love poses. Can she commit adultery under these circumstances? Is her husband really dying? Do Dai and Yu really understand the implications of offering Dai Xiu as a bride for Zhang when she turns eighteen?. It's the stuff of great melodrama and played with such precision and feeling here that it is never anything less than totally compelling and deeply affecting. The waves of longing, regret and love that wash over the actors' faces are hard to forget in one of the year's best films. It's interesting to note that Fei Mu, who directed the 1948 film, was considered a rightist by Communist Party officials who declared his films of no interest. That Tian has chosen to remake a film by a once-reviled figure shows that his talent for subversion has not deserted him in the long wait between directing assignments.
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SPRINGTIME IN A SMALL TOWN (PG)
CAST: Hu Jing Fan, Wu Jun, Xin Bai Qing, Ye Xiao Keng, Lu Sisi
PRODUCER: Li Xiaowan, Bill Kong, Tang Yatming
DIRECTOR: Tian Zhuangzhuang
SCRIPT: Ah Cheng (Based on the story by Li Tianji and the 1948 film adaptation by Fei Mu)
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Mark Lee (Li Pingbin)
EDITOR: Xu Jianping
MUSIC: Zhao Li
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Cheng Guangming
RUNNING TIME: 116 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Niche Pictures
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: September 25, 2003 (Advance screenings Sept 19, 20, 21)