nys writers logo

Spring in a Small TownSpring in a Small Town (Xiao Cheng Zhi Chun)

(China, 1948, 85 minutes, b&w, DVD)

Directed by Fei Mu
In Mandarin with English subtitles.


Chaoming Cui ……….Lao Huang
Wei Li……….Zhang Zhichen
Yu Shi……….Dai Liyan
Wei Wei..........Zhou Yuwen

The following film notes were prepared for the New York State Writers Institute by Kevin Jack Hagopian, Senior Lecturer in Media Studies at Pennsylvania State University:

All movies are remakes; the best are revisions. Great movies wind skeins of influences – individual films, directors’ entire ouevres, the life experiences of the filmmakers – around the pretext of plot.  In the case of 2002 film Springtime in a Small Town, Tian Zhuangzhuang’s  remake of the legendary 1948 film by Fei Mu, Spring in a Small Town, the challenge was immense, for the original was a towering monument to the art of cinema in the minds of those fortunate enough to have seen it. Now, re-released, the original exists in a remarkable dialogue with its younger descendant. 

Obstinately, the Hong Kong Film Awards voted the film “the greatest Chinese film ever made” more than once, an act of defiance, for the film was suppressed anew each time. It presented a China exhausted by war, and by endless promises of  reform which played out in yet more brutal exploitation. Read as a political allegory, Spring in a Small Town is an absurdist parable of  the hope for deliverance dashed, of ambition turned inward to bitter reflection. State censors at the time of its original release were suspicious of the film’s refusal either to romanticize the lives of ordinary people, or to make two-dimensional fools of the property-owner classes. Instead, they arched their eyebrows over what they called the film’s “narcotizing effect,” and withdrew it from distribution. Its original screenings had become lore, and audiences have been calling for its rerelease for many years.

Fei Mu’s film is a small, cloistered drama of a soul crushed like a flower petal underfoot.  Its portrayal of Chinese society is sustained by melancholy. We meet a couple, a loveless squire and his wife. Their marriage is rotting away from disinterest and distrust when a doctor arrives to treat the husband, and discovers a coincidence that is heartening and foreboding in the same instant:  he was the wife’s first love, her true love, never forgotten. The spaces of the film are strewn with debris, austere and disturbing places with a Tarkovskian dread clinging to them. “I simply don’t know how to live in the future,” says the wife, and this is the future. It seems as if the doctor has been thrown into the woman’s life to break the brittle dead stem of her marriage.  He is everything her husband is not, a vital new species of maleness in the woman’s dessicated emotional life.

Reviewer J. Hoberman called the film Strindbergian, “claustrophobic and shadowy…”  Its cinematic brothers and sisters might be a world away, in the somber, romantic French interwar cinema of Prevert and Renoir, and films like Le Jour Se Leve and The Human Beast, or American domestic noirs likeMax Ophuls’ Caught, an equally moody  film of a woman caught in a dead marriage to a disturbed man of wealth. Born of a society that had endured 15 years of bloodletting and occupation at the hands of the Japanese, and long generations of cynical plundering and exploitation by warlords, the morbidity of Spring in a Small Town is well-earned.  Its narrative voice is that of the woman herself, who is allowed to tell her story, sometimes to plunge deep into her memories or her unconscious. Like other films of shattered narration, like Resnais’ Hiroshima, Mon Amour, this is a film which understands that consciousness itself is a fitful, strange thing, moving from place to place in the world we have made in our heads.

It is difficult to tell what the fate of Tian Zhuangzhuang’s younger film will be in the wake of the long-awaited reappearance of Spring in a Small Town. When Brian DePalma’s Obsession was released in 1976, with its many borrowings from Hitchcock’s Vertigo (then missing from distribution), it satisfied the deep longings of cinephiles for some souvenir from their absent object of desire. But when Vertigo was re-released in the 1980s, Obsession suddenly became odd, even pathetic. The remake of Springtime in a Small Town does not suffer from the vanity of Obsession: clearly, Tian’s film could imagine a time when its own popularity would help to restore the original Spring in a Small Town to movie screens, and when the two films, one less an impersonation of the other than an echo, would be compared directly.  Now, thankfully, one does not need a faded photograph of the blossom to smell its bouquet.

For additional information, contact the Writers Institute at 518-442-5620 or online at