One might need a historical appreciation of the progressive impact of this Chinese classic to feel its greatness, but as a film in itself, it feels quite bland and uncompelling.
Dir. Fei Mu
1948 | China | Drama/Romance | 98 mins | 1.37:1 | Mandarin
PG (passed clean)
Cast: Cui Chaoming, Li Wei, Shi Yu, Wei Wei, Zhang Hongmei
Plot: A lonely housewife finds her monotonous life altered when her childhood sweetheart returns to town.
Source: China Film Archive
Subject Matter: Moderate
Narrative Style: Straightforward
Audience Type: Slightly Arthouse
(Reviewed as part of Migratory Times programme at Oldham Theatre)
This is probably one of the highest-praised films in the history of Chinese cinema, ranking first in a list by the Hong Kong Film Awards celebrating ‘The Best 100 Chinese Motion Pictures’, plus numerous directors including Wong Kar-Wai citing it as a major influence in their work. Well, for better or worse, it is hard to see a film like In the Mood for Love (2000) now without some mental picture of Spring in a Small Town popping up now and then.
Considering it was made only a few years after WWII, Fei Mu’s work here is certainly progressive for its time, with undercurrents of sexuality and infidelity threatening to rise to the surface, but it is the theme of longing for a different (read: better) future that best characterises the film, particularly if you see it as a parable of China at a ‘what-if?’ socio-political crossroad, just before the 1949 Communist Revolution.
But while one might need a historical appreciation of Fei Mu’s film to feel its greatness, I personally feel that as a work in itself, it is rather bland and uncompelling, like a stage play that is figuring out its cinematic potential, only to force its own conception onto the big screen. I’m certainly in the minority here, but I don’t want to pretend that I enjoyed it. I found the performances too stilted and the narrative less complex than what critics have made it out to be.
After all, it’s a simple story of a couple—a sick husband and his wife who is drifting away—whose marriage is tested when an old friend/flame of the two drops by, sparking hidden desires. (It was remade by Tian Zhuangzhuang in 2002 as Springtime in a Small Town, which I’m now piqued to see if it is any better.)
Perhaps it is only through a critical and academic reading of Fei Mu’s film, and situating it specifically in the context of gender, identity and politics, as well as the larger Chinese cinema, that it becomes an important work to cherish. Otherwise, I don’t feel moved or provoked enough to want to champion it.