Monday, 30 June 2014
Sad state of affairs: "Spring in a Small Town"
Fei Mu's tragic romance Spring in a Small Town, the tentpole reissue of the BFI's current China survey, would appear to occupy the same place within Chinese cinema as Douglas Sirk's melodramas do within its American equivalent. Beneath its placid, genteel surfaces, there lies a critical project; it's a film that wells up and then spills over with an irrepressible sadness at the state of things. Not surprisingly, it was largely shunned by audiences back in 1948, and earned Fei a place on the authorities' naughty list; it would be remade by the no less dissident Tian Zhuangzhuang in 2002, the same year Todd Haynes paid homage to Sirk with the Oscar-nominated Far From Heaven. It takes longer for some voices of protest to make themselves widely heard.
The film's theme is love among the rubble, and it could almost serve as neo-realism, were the material not so inherently swoony. Yuwen (Wei Wei), a stifled housewife in a remote rural community, has seen her horizons reduced to tending to her ailing husband Liyan (Shi Yu) in a home bombed out during the war years. The pair have since regrouped - with his younger sister, and their loyal house servant - to live on the outskirts of their courtyard in a cramped and makeshift facsimile of domestic bliss, but it's clear very early on that (with the possible exception of the sister, too young to know any better) nobody's really happy here: certainly not hubby, whose fragile heart is pained by the melancholy sight of the family estate gone to ruin, nor his wife, obliged to act as an especially decorous housemaid. (Her voiceover, which could have been a grating exercise in show-and-tell, seems instead like Fei's way of acknowledging - and providing some outlet for - this woman's inner life, and her mounting regrets.)
Then an acquaintance comes to visit, bringing with the change of seasons the possibility of renewal and growth: this doctor, made worldly and affluent by his wartime activities, is an old drinking buddy of the husband, and a sometime sweetheart of the wife - not that hubby knows about this, and not that anybody is likely to tell him. For everyone on screen appears paralysed by their sense of duty - a characteristic Fei regards as less admirable than abnormal, unnatural, potentially lethal, when it comes down to it. The sister's dreams of becoming a dancer are being politely stifled by her brother's insistence she hit the books; Yuwen becomes increasingly manic in her attempts to seize this second chance at happiness. Everyone keeps gravitating towards the city wall, on the lookout for a future more exciting and rewarding than the present, yet even this will prove a dead end - another boundary that cannot be breached. You can see exactly why the powers-that-be frowned upon it, for Fei's film is both a heartbreaker and a revelation: seemingly an attempt to do Madame Bovary, Double Indemnity and Brief Encounter at one and the same time.
Spring in a Small Town is now playing in selected cinemas.