Cinema Epoch // 1948 // 90 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Joel Pearce (Retired) // August 1st, 2007
"The greatest Chinese film ever made."
A bold claim indeed. Spring in a Small Town (originally known as Xiao cheng zhi chun) has been languishing in the vaults for quite a while, banned in China and rarely found anywhere else. It is an impressive film which has aged quite well. In other ways, though, the expectations outweigh the reality: I don't think this film deserves that title. Still, it is a groundbreaking film from an impressive director and an important cultural artifact.
Zhou Yuwen (Wei Wei) is trapped in a dull marriage with tuberculosis and hypochondria suffering husband Dai Liyan (Yu Shi). They have drifted apart over the past few years and now hardly speak to each other. Things get shaken up when Zhang Zhichen (Wei Li, Ju Dou), Yuwen's former lover, arrives at the house to stay for a while. They are more attracted to each other than ever, but Liyan tries to get Zhichen hooked up with his younger sister, Mei (Hongmei Zhang). Tensions rise as the various relationships play out.
While I'm not ready to validate the Hong Kong Film Awards Association's assertion that this is the greatest Chinese film ever made, it is quite an impressive discovery. It features a very strong female protagonist, who is trapped in an unhappy marriage and struggles with an almost unbearable level of bitterness. It's hard to blame her, since she was forced to abandon Zhichen in favor of the neurotic Liyan, a situation that has not turned out well at all. The subtle and complex relationships between the characters are well written, to the point that it's almost impossible to side with anyone through most of the film. Liyan wants the best for his wife, but whines so much that he can't step up to the plate and make anything happen. While Yuwen is trapped in a lousy situation with Liyan, she does little to try to make things better. Like the best dramas, the suspense in Spring in a Small Town comes from the fact that these feel like real people, and we don't know how they will respond to the twists that life throws at them.
At times, the first half of the film tends to languish in self-pity, rather than building the dramatic tension needed to carry us through. This is done most through a heavy-handed voiceover from Yuwen, which is distracting and often irrelevant. That voiceover fades as the second half begins, though, and the interactions between the characters takes center stage. Indeed, Spring in a Small Town would work well as a stage play, with so few characters and locations to deal with. The performances are excellent, though, and never feel staged. Each performer is subtle and sincere, brilliantly reflecting the nuances of the script.
It's easy to see how this film managed to get itself banned in early Communist China. It flirts with a variety of challenging issues and ideas, acknowledging Yuwen's desire to have an affair. It's also set in the aftermath of the war, and the house is as damaged and broken as the characters. It seems that their frustrations and pain is a reflection of what is happening in China, though that message is never delivered in an overbearing way. Rather, each of the ideas is delivered simply and ambiguously, leaving us to puzzle out the meaning.
As the film presses towards the inevitable end, it speeds up and we become increasingly drawn into the melodrama. The resolution of the story acquits the slow startup nicely, and we are left with an impressive classic on par with many of the great films from Europe and Japan. Many people have been waiting to see Spring in a Small Town for a long time, and I don't think they will be disappointed.
Regardless of what can be said for Spring in a Small Town, I have some major issues with Cinema Epoch's DVD. While I'm sure the print of a 60-year-old Chinese film that was once banned wasn't in pristine condition, this is the ugliest DVD transfer I have ever seen. The picture is full of skips, jumps, combing artifacts, dirt, and compression artifacts. Overall, the image is soft and the contrast is weak. Had a company like Criterion gotten behind Spring in a Small Town, I think the experience of watching it would be completely different. The audio is also dreadful, akin to listening to a 50-year-old record with a damaged needle. Pops and scratches often drown out dialogue, and a loud hiss is often distracting. The subtitles often drop out for several lines at a time, which makes the film difficult to follow. Though I'm sure Cinema Epoch did what it could with the resources at its disposal, the results can only be described as disappointing.
We do get an essay on the film written by film critic Wade Major, but it is placed on the disc rather than in a printed insert.
Had Spring in a Small Town arrived as a more impressive DVD package, it would be an easy recommendation for any foreign film fan. It's a long-lost classic, a brilliantly woven and constructed film from a cinematic tradition that has all but vanished over time. I still highly recommend it to fans of classic Chinese cinema, though a rental may be enough considering the questionable technical quality. Is it too much to hope for a fully restored special edition? Perhaps not. This release just might give Spring in a Small Town the momentum it needs to grow a much larger following.
Though Cinema Epoch hasn't dazzled me with this release, I am willing to let them go for bringing this great classic to the light of day.
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Scales of Justice
* Bottom 100 Discs: #23
Studio: Cinema Epoch
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (Chinese)
Running Time: 90 Minutes
Release Year: 1948
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Critical Essay