Judge Joel Pearce recommends this Chinese import, if you can get past its languid pace.
"I don't want you to leave, and yet I can't go with you." -Yuwen
Even though Springtime in a Small Town has glacial pacing, many viewers will find it very rich and rewarding. It is a very human look at what happens when relationships stagnate and new opportunities arise. It is simple and beautifully shot, and will please fans that have the patience for such a small-scale film. It is a remake of a Chinese film from the 1940s, and offers a fresh viewing experience while remaining very faithful to the tone and pacing of a film from that period.
Facts of the Case
In 1940s China, Liyan (Wu Jun) and his wife Yuwen (Hu Jing Fan) have been married for ten years, but things are not going well. Liyan has fallen ill, and is forced to spend most of his time resting quietly. Yuwen takes care of the shopping and embroiders, and they have no affection or passion between them. The monotony of this routine is shaken up with the arrival of Zhichen (Bai Qing), a childhood friend of Liyan who is now a doctor. The thing Liyan doesn't realize is that Zhichen and Yuwen had once been fond of one another, although it had never gone anywhere. The arrival of the doctor rekindles Yuwen's feelings for him, and no real happy solution seems imminent. The situation becomes even more complicated when Liyan attempts to set up his younger sister Xiu (Lu Sisi) with the doctor, unwittingly shutting himself out of this new love triangle.
Love is very selectively portrayed in films, and is generally approached as an unyielding emotional force. Characters fall in love, whether it's with people they can be with or can't, and are then trapped on the rails of those feelings, ultimately arriving at some predetermined location. These couples are either destined to be together or doomed to be apart, and nothing else in the world of the film can change that end. Stories with this notion of love must end in either joy or tragedy, for the story can only have one of two outcomes. There is another side of love, though, that is often ignored in film. Regardless of our feelings, we need to choose what to do in terms of our relationships, and the results are not always as extreme.
One of the reasons I respect Springtime in a Small Town is that it gives an accurate and thoughtful portrayal of love. When Zhichen arrives, it does rekindle the feelings of each of the characters. Many dramas would have allowed that to drive the narrative, but this film focuses instead on the choice that each character needs to make. Liyan must decide whether his wife's happiness is more important than having her near him. Yuwen must decide whether to do the right thing or to follow her heart. Zhichen needs to decide whether his love for Yuwen is worth the guilt and shame of betraying his friend.
The film is simply and beautifully shot, emphasizing the slow, painstaking process of decision-making that must happen in the film. The house, partly destroyed by an undiscussed war, has been frozen in time, just like the lives of its owners. There is repetition in their days, and the camera sits on this routine unblinkingly. Even after Zhichen arrives, things take a while to thaw out and become more comfortable again. The camera often peers out from behind objects, making us feel as though we are looking in on the sad lives of the characters. This cinematography captures the feeling of an intimate stage play better than anything else I have ever seen, using the placement of the characters in the shots to make statements about their power relationships and emotions.
The actors (and there are only five, most in their first film performances) all deliver their performances as though they were on a small stage. They take their time, allowing the camera to capture the gradual developments of the situation. We see long, uninterrupted conversations unfold just as they would in real life. Although this technique feels strange after the standard shot structures of filmed conversations, it accomplishes exactly what's needed in this case. While our viewing is less guided this way, it forces us to pay attention to each movement and word of the characters to follow the subtleties in their interaction. While the plot is not driven by suspense, the outcome of the situation is not certain until the very end.
The DVD is acceptable, if not remarkable. The image is anamorphic, but doesn't have the level of detail normally associated with a good anamorphic transfer. The dark scenes are too dark, with no detail in the shadows, and the lighter scenes seem drab and washed out. Some of this is likely intentional, but not to this extent. There are some flaws, including occasional dirt from the print, some visible compression and light edge enhancement. It's certainly watchable, but lacks the quality that we normally see in new transfers of films from the past few years. The audio is better, if intentionally very sparse. The dialogue is clear, and there is almost no background noise or music. There is good stereo separation in a few moments, so this was likely a creative choice. The subtitles are clear and easy to read, with virtually no visible errors.
The disc is light on special features. There is a production featurette interspersed with interviews with members of the cast and crew. It runs for about an hour in total, and is well worth checking out for a deeper discussion of the techniques and concepts in the film. There is also a radio interview between director Tian Zhuangzhuang and Leonard Lopate. It is an interesting interview, which proves that Zhuangzhuang has decided carefully how to both pick up concepts from the classic film and make this one unique.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I know I've already discussed it, but I want to reinforce it again: the pacing of Springtime in a Small Town is slow enough to turn off many potential viewers. In some ways it feels like a very long film, even though it runs less than two hours.
If you have never seen a slow-paced domestic stage play and don't know what I mean when I discuss that type of pacing and rhythm, it might be worth checking this out for a taste of that. If you tend to doze during slow films, though, this may be one that you want to pass on. If this review makes the film sound intriguing and you have the patience, you will find it well worth your time to contemplate what it has to say. The DVD isn't fantastic, but it's the best way we have to experience this thoughtful and unique film.
Springtime in a Small Town is a mature and challenging film executed with skill and care. Not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Palm Pictures
• Production Featurette
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