Spring in a Small Town (DVD)

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Spring in a Small Town (DVD)

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Review of "Spring in a Small Town (DVD)"

published 05/06/2015 | GenerallyInterested
Member since : 15/07/2013
Reviews : 223
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About me :
Still snoozing.
Pro A beautifully acted and beguiling film
Cons Black and white and with subtitles (if that's an issue)
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Characters / Performances
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"Spring in a Small Town - a beguiling, slow burning drama"

Spring in a Small Town (DVD)

Spring in a Small Town (DVD)

And so another film that seems to have a classic tag associated to it, always a bad thing going into a film. Instant disappointment, just add viewing

The BFI recently had a retrospective of Chinese cinema. I didn’t go and see a single film, not sure why, but I simply couldn’t get excited about it. One thing I certainly noticed though was that they had an extended run of Spring in a Small Town, which hails from 1948 and had the tag of perhaps the best Chinese film ever made. Usually this means that it isn’t and somebody really wants to champion a film but nevertheless the BFI also decided to release it on DVD, so I added it to my lovefilm list and thought, well I’d like to watch it, so I bashed it onto high priority. Plus the poster was quite nice. I’m deep like that.

A week or two later and it appeared. Sitting there upon my doormat, it waited patiently for me to get home from work. It took a few days for me to get round to watching it and I was feeling pretty tired and maybe not quite 100% and I put the disc into the DVD player thinking it was only a 90 minute film, so not too long. I turned it off within 10 minutes, but only because I really didn’t feel well, those 10 minutes felt strangely special and the film was actually remarkably compelling, almost beguiling, yes, and right from the start. I was frustrated that I couldn’t just sit there and watch the whole thing but nevertheless I finished it off the next day.

All right then, to allow us to get to the interesting bit –that really should be the end of the review but I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt – please introduce our cast and give us a nice and concise overview of the plot

Wei Wei, as Zhou Yuwen; the lady of the household; takes a daily walk by the city walls; spends a lot of time grocery shopping
Shi Yu, as Dai Liyan; Yuwen’s husband; sickly; used to better things
Li Wei, as Zhang Zhichen; Liyan's childhood friend; Yuwen's former lover; a doctor
Cui Chaoming as Lao Huang, Liyan's and Yuwen's loyal servant; cheery
Zhang Hongmei, as Dai Xiu, Liyan's young sister; is rather taken with Zhichen

Yuwen and her husband, Dai Liyan live in the partially destroyed home of his forebears, amongst a legacy of once and now fading grandeur. Sickly, Liyan spends his days within the house, about the grounds, barely speaking to his wife, from whom he is estranged. Enter then his childhood friend, Zhichen, a doctor and who in his childhood was in love with Yuwen. Love still lingers between the two and Zhichen’s protracted stay in their home brings tensions to the fore, especially when we begin to realise that Liyan’s younger sister, has her eyes on Zhichen.

Arguably then there’s nothing particularly original in the plot, thus I assume that the proof is in the performances and the subtleties and well, get on with it…

One of the first things that struck me about the film was just the ways that it felt like it could not been made under communism. So I actually went and checked to see if it had been made during the time of the Cultural Revolution. Sometimes very prescriptive societies can allow oddities to slip through the cultural cracks and I was not surprised to find out that the film was made about a year before the Cultural Revolution happened. There’s nothing particularly political about this film, and what little I know of art under the Cultural Revolution is that it was meant to be very political, frequently focusing on the efforts of the people, the strain of their lives and ultimately their freedom through communism. You know, that bullshit. There is a certain gentleness to the film, though it’s not innocent and it’s not naive, its heart is very much in the right place and it is quite sophisticated and humane. Unlike most communism in the flesh.

The film makes copious use of a voice-over by Yuwen, which could be a tedious and rather lazy way of giving the audience story, but actually it works very well, because it truly does give us an insight into the workings of her mind and also simply because the actresses has a rather hypnotic voice. (I told you that I’m deep, didn’t I?) As the film opens Yuwen is walking home a cross the old broken city wall, thinking that she could simply keep on walking but returns home – you know that these are thoughts that softly run through her mind every time she returns home, like a mantra. The images are quietly beautiful in their black-and-white way but arguably not staggering; though there is something in the composition and the actress’ manner and the voice-over that is immediately quite enthralling. My immediate reaction simply was one of almost falling in love with the film but not quite knowing why. Maybe it was because it was able to generate an atmosphere of some intimacy, and in fact the story is very intimate because we barely ever meet anyone other than our five main characters. Most of the film takes place within the family’s house and grounds, with only a few short sorties into the outside world and so though it may be quite claustrophobic in one sense, there is also a feel that Yuwen’s home and gardens as being quite mysterious and occasionally labyrinthine – it’s been bombed about a bit making strange nooks and barriers. It’s clear that they live only in a part of the house because it was mainly destroyed in the war that had only just finished. Immediately there is a sense of melancholy and maybe also of faded grandeur, which seems to suit the husband, Liyan, who is sickly and weak and distant from his wife. Frequently he feels almost like an apparition.

The slightly melancholy tone of the film is then set within the first five minutes and is maintained throughout. Emotions tend to run deep under the surface, and much goes unsaid, though this is not a staid and quiet film; it may be told in a flowing, in a very gentle manner but it’s not lazy or slow and especially the character of the sister is very vivacious – she injects obvious life. But the film is certainly quietly and softly paced, as it follows our five characters. In a way it reminds me a little bit of the films of Ozu, which is certainly a good thing.

There are some intriguing anachronistic facets of the film, as the film opens and we are introduced to the characters as they appear on screen and it tells us the name of the actor, the name of the character and this is rather unusual and something that you expected to see in a great many silent films from the late 1910s, so immediately that piqued my interest – sad silent film fan that I am. Also the use of sound was at times quite intriguing. I wasn’t sure if this was intentional or because of technical and budgetary constraints. Anybody who’s watched very early sound films will know that they had trouble picking up sound through microphones and very frequently as scenes progressed and action moved away from the microphone the scene would become simply silent. There are a great many scenes like that across Spring in a Small Town and regardless of whether or not the film suffers from a dearth of technologically advanced – for the time anyway – equipment, the effect is rather wonderful. The silence really emphasises the acting, especially the gestures and the way the characters move and sometimes simply their relative distance from one another. It seems to draw our attention in as well, because we really do focus our all upon what they are doing and not distracted by extraneous sound. I’d like to think that it was intentional, because it’s the kind of drama where it really works. Very frequently the scenes take place with just two of the characters, which could make it very talky and a bit fractured but actually helps to really draw out the different relationships between all of the characters. I loved the precision of it all, especially the careful ways that the actors were so carefully placed and framed in relation to one another.

And the film is really is about its characters

It is, and that’s where much of the subtlety really takes place. This something in the way the characters all relate to one another and their emotions shift between them that really sucks you in from an emotional perspective. Yuwen does not feel much emotion towards her husband apart from the sense of her being his nurse, while she has a great deal of affection for his sister, Dai Xiu. Early on in the film we see how Yuwen’s life is very restrictive, much of her day is taken in needlework and it’s noticeable that her needlework is not done in her own room but that of the sister’s Xiu. Xiu in turn rather has her eye on Zhichen and she’s just old enough to start thinking about marriage, at least in those days, as she’s 16. Liyan is overjoyed to see his friend for the first time in a decade and it’s noticeable that suddenly he becomes alive for the first time in the film when we see Zhichen. As the film progresses we begin to understand the depth of feeling that is between Yuwen and Zhichen. As they take moments to talk and express their feelings, their relationship starts to affect Yuwen’s husband and his sister. The way that the different relationships gently drift closer and apart and apart and closer is very cleverly done, and also means that you have sympathy with almost everyone. It would be very easy for Liyan to be an irritating and emotionless character, because ultimately he’s the one who has pushed his wife away, but he’s sympathetic in many ways though quite clearly it’s Yuwen who as an audience we feel the most connection to and are most interested in just where she will end up at the end of the film.

As to the ending, I won’t spoil that but it felt right, and like so much of the film it felt so very humane. As the film unfolded before my eyes I was slightly concerned that the film would either lose its way or end in such a way that felt inappropriate to the characters and to the way that the film suggests not only emotional fragility but also great strength. Somehow it managed to pull rabbits out of the hat as it closed and for this I was very grateful and very pleased.

Just in general the characters are well developed and you certainly have great sympathy with Yuwen, who is never a self-piteous wet blanket as perhaps at the beginning of the film she could have been. You feel that she is in many ways just like the rest of us, with reserves of strengthen and very specific needs. I felt engaged by her and also the actress Wei Wei, who I think gave a superb performance. It’s one of those performances that is hard to quantify because you can’t quite say what it is that she’s done right. I think perhaps it’s a little bit like Tony Leung in In the Mood for Love, where you just think he seems to entirely occupy the role. Wei Wei just entirely exists as the Yuwen and there seems to be no place where the actress begins or the character takes over. There’s something in many ways quite remarkable about that and Wei Wei just seems to effortlessly elicit our sympathy and also our support. I certainly found myself rooting for her in a way that I didn’t for any of the other characters, except for maybe the sister, Xiu because of her energy and open enthusiasm for life that is so lacking in her brother, Liyan. I also felt there was a great of carefulness and precision in the way the actress moved, her gestures and expressions that really made good use of the screen. Often we see her quite close-up so we are given the opportunity to really see her character visually.

Zhang Hongmei, who plays Xiu, is something of a delight. She has that youthful exuberance and energy and vivacity that manages to spring off the screen. There’s a lovely openness to her performance because though she’s full of energy and life, she’s not a character who is just energy and life, there’s great depth to the character and just like Yuwen you feel like there’s also a great deal of fragility under the surface. But equally there is a great reserve of strength there too. Xiu is every bit as sympathetic as Yuwen and I have to say the actress deserves credit for this.

I do wonder if the three men of the film have the easier roles. Cui Chaoming as the family’s long-time servant - and now only servant, good times having gone the way of war - is by the book but it’s a good book and there’s something slightly avuncular about him and I like that but it’s a very straightforward and expected role. Shi Yu, as the husband, I think maybe gives a better performance than at first you think, in part this is because it doesn’t seem too difficult to sit around and look rather pale and wan, but again he is able to keep his character sympathetic and his energy and friendship for Zhichen reminds us of the fact that he is a caring human being, and he also cares greatly for his sister. So I guess Shi Yu does well in the role for all of the things that he could have done badly. In a different film you would have wanted to hate the character, to really shake your fist at him and say: you don’t deserve your wife, just hurry up and shuffle off this mortal coil. But we never think that and also the character is rounded like all the rest, and has the ability to surprise you and that’s really no bad thing.

So this only really leaves us with Li Wei as the doctor in love with Yuwen. He portrays just about every emotion in the book, but again it’s a good, well bound book and he is able to once again show us sides of a character that is robust and also fragile. One of the reasons that I felt that the film couldn’t have been made – or it would have been very difficult to have made – under the Cultural Revolution is the way in which both his character and Yuwen are able to be at times so open about how they feel. But often so much runs under the surface and I think that Li Wei does very well when it comes to implying his emotions. There’s nothing melodramatic in his performance and actually there’s nothing melodramatic in anybody’s performance and the film could very easily have descended into overcooked melodrama.

Before you become melodramatic - though you are certainly overcooked - why not robustly exit this drama

If I’m honest I normally write film reviews pretty easily. They just seem to flow (as I write if not to read) and not be particularly difficult beasts but I feel like I almost don’t know where to start or where to end with Spring in a Small Town. The film is beautifully judged in the way that it tells its story, allows its characters to be reveal and sometimes suppress their emotions and just that intimate tone that it’s able to generate is quietly wonderful and softly beautiful. Again visually it is interesting and certainly some of the scenes between Yuwen and Zhichen are beautifully shot, in part because the electricity disappears at midnight and so there is nothing left but perhaps a lone candle to light the scene, yet you’re not looking at startling film noir lighting or anything quite that stark. Rather the images tend to be well composed and also frequently what is placed within the frame, the way that the characters are distant or close seems remarkably intentional. (Once more, the word “precise” springs to mind – pun marginally intended.)

So yes it is a rather wonderful film and a rather lovely film. I’ve never been too enamoured of Chinese cinema – and I do consider Hong Kong cinema as a separate entity – but there does seem to be something really quite special about Spring in a Small Town. I don’t mean this from the perspective of something special about it in the context of Chinese cinema but just something special about it cinematically. I can see why the BFI decided to pay it so much attention, because it truly deserves it and you would hope it gets a wider audience than perhaps it probably will. So I’d certainly recommend it and recommend it to anybody who likes dramas that are humane and human and straightforward. Yes you may have to read some subtitles but does that really matter?

In terms of extras you have a couple of short films that are views of Chinese society of the time. As always because I’m not too interested in extras I didn’t really explore these too greatly. It also comes with a booklet, but otherwise apart from the obligatory trailer there’s nothing. It’s not cheap, between about £12-17 it’s going to cost you quite a lot but then as a subtle film full of subdued desire, hints of guilt and rather haunting, you really can’t do much better and as I say so very frequently with films because you have a small audience the larger cost of the DVD becomes sometimes rather more justifiable. Also it’s a restored print so the quality is excellent and that really helps because of the frequent detail in and visual delicacy of the film.

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Comments on this review

  • Secre published 24/07/2015
    Excellent write up
  • hiker published 19/06/2015
    Excellent write up - intrigued by this one.
  • mi_wa published 13/06/2015
    Lovely to see it so HD
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Product Information : Spring in a Small Town (DVD)

Manufacturer's product description

Product Details

Country Of Origin: China

Genre: Drama

DVD Region: DVD

Actor: Wei, Wei

Director(s) (Last name, First name): Mu, Fei

Title: S

EAN: 5035673020142

Classification: Universal

Video Category: World Cinema Feature Film

Production Year: 1948

Running Time: 1 hour 34 minutes


Listed on Ciao since: 14/03/2015