Spring in a Small Town (1948)

In China’s official film history, Fei Mu is labelled as an ideologically irresolute petit bourgeois artist, because he never joined the Leftist filmmakers camp. Fei Mu’s final work Spring in a Small Town was criticized as ‘spreading passive, contradictory, decadent, pale, sickly, depressing, gloomy‘ sentiments. After being buried for 35 years, the film saw the light again at a Chinese cinema retrospective in Hong Kong in 1983, stunning critics who hailed it as a masterpiece. Thereafter it has taken first place position in multiple ‘Top 10’ Chinese-language film polls and earned a reputation for being the ‘Best Chinese Film’.

Spring in a Small Town has a cast of five – wife, husband, younger sister, guest, servant; and a simple situation – the chronically ill husband is weary of life; his wife takes care of him as she has no choice; one day they’re paid a visit by his old friend who turns out to be her first love. Despite the air-tight environment, Fei Mu created psychological depth and complexity with the wife’s internal monologues which take the form of her off-screen voice. Through meticulous rehearsals and improvisation, he enabled the actors to slip comfortably into their roles, and gave the acting nuance by steps, postures and hand gestures borrowed from the Chinese operatic stage. An exceedingly seductive Wei Wei gave the sexiest performance in Chinese film history as a wife caught between duty and desire.

Possibly borrowed from the theatre and transformed into pure filmic style by Fei Mu was the long take aesthetic featuring the plan-séquence – quietly observing with a horizontal mise-en-scene instead of a composition in depth. Dialogues are sparse, relying on the eyes and on gestures to express the intricacies of the relationships. Dissolves replace cuts between scenes, to reflect the tender and lingering nature of the romantic entanglements. Even more intoxicating are the dissolves within a single scene which sublimates rather than pushes the narrative. Sometimes dissolves come out of nowhere to highlight a moment of recognition. Viewed today, these are still daring modernist film concepts way ahead of their time.

Boudoir blues as a metaphor is a recurring trope in traditional Chinese art and literature. Spring in a Small Town was made in 1948 against a background of civil war after the War of Resistance Against Japan was won. The woman trapped between husband and lover is an imagery for intellectuals at the time who saw themselves as neither ‘progressive’ nor ‘reactionary’.