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SPRINGTIME IN A SMALL TOWN

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Hu Jing Fan, Wu Jun, Xin Bai Qing, Lu Sisi
Director: Tian Zhuangzhuang
Audio: Mandarin Chinese 2.0
Subtitles: English
Video: Color, anamorphic widescreen 1.85:1
Studio: Palm Pictures
Features: Radio interview, making-of documentary, trailers, web-links
Length: 112 minutes
Release Date: November 23, 2004

"Things are different now."

Film ***

For decades, the Chinese film industry has functioned mainly as a mouthpiece for the Chinese government.  This was not always the case.  Prior to 1949, Chinese films offered the usual popular entertainment for the masses.  However, following the Communist takeover of China in 1949, the new government sought to exploit the medium's potential to exert tight control over the populace.  Henceforth films would serve predominately dull, propagandistic purposes.  As if to accentuate this point, Chinese filmmakers carefully studied Soviet filmmaking as the cinematic model prior to opening the Beijing Film Academy in 1956.  One can only shudder to imagine the numbing impact of such dreary, brainwashing films as were produced during this era.

During the Cultural Revolution of the 1960's, the government-controlled film industry fared even worse.  Most films up to this time were banned altogether, and the film industry was suppressed into near-extinction.  Only in recent years has Chinese cinema begun to show signs of tenuous resurgence, particularly with the rise to prominence in the 1980's of China's Fifth-Generation filmmakers, among them Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige.  Nonetheless, many of these filmmakers achieved their early success outside of China rather than at home, where film censorship remained stringent and largely inflexible.

Tian Zhuangzhuang was one of the promising Fifth-Generation filmmakers.  He is best-known outside of China as the director of The Blue Kite (1993), and while the film was well-received internationally, domestically its message of social and political critique enraged the Chinese government.  In a severe reprimand, the director was blacklisted after the film's release and consequently not allowed to make another film for nearly a decade.

Xiao cheng zhi chun (Springtime in a Small Town, 2002) represents Tian Zhuangzhuang's belated (and humbled) return to feature filmmaking.  Decidedly apolitical this time around, Tian's mannered and elegant film is actually a remake of a classic 1940's Chinese film about a love triangle in a small provincial town.  Ironically, the original film itself, made in 1948 by arguably China's greatest filmmaker ever, Fei Mu, had been suppressed and forgotten for decades.  Fei Mu himself faded into obscurity after his death in 1951 and today remains essentially unknown outside of China.

In this regard, Tian Zhuangzhuang's film can be considered a tribute to Fei Mu's legacy as well as an attempt to restore Tian's own reputation in Chinese cinema.  To these ends, Tian has succeeded admirably.  Following its premiere, Springtime in a Small Town won the prestigious Golden Lion Award at the Venice Film Festival, and Tian was elevated back among the ranks of the best Fifth-Generation filmmakers.

As with most domestic Chinese films, Springtime in a Small Town is very deliberately paced.  Set in the aftermath of the second world war, the film opens one day with the arrival of a handsome young stranger to town.  His name is Zhang Zhichen (Xin Bai Qing), and he is a young doctor come from afar to re-visit an old friend, Dai Liyan (Wu Jun).  Although the town has not been spared from the ravages of warfare, Zhichen remembers it well from his more carefree days of youth and has no difficulty relocating his friend's still-standing if somewhat battered home.

As with the town, so too has Liyan changed over the years.  He is married now but is lonesome and ailing, his relationship with his young wife Yuwen (Hu Jing Fan) grown cold and impassionate.  Liyan still cares deeply for Yuwen but in his ill health fears that he is unable to provide for her needs.  Unbeknownst to Liyan, Yuwen and Zhichen grew up together in the same neighborhood, a common past that will play a significant role in the days to come.

After eight years of marriage, Yuwen has become indifferent to the routines of her stagnant village life.  She regularly goes to the market, buys prescriptions for her husband, and sits quietly at home doing embroidery or tending to her flowers.  Life holds little surprise for her, so when Zhichen unexpectedly arrives, a new element of excitement and joviality is introduced into her family life.  Days of relative inactivity are soon replaced by days of boating trips, outdoor strolls, and dinner parties.  Yuwen's husband even begins to show signs of improvement.  More importantly, fate seemingly has brought Yuwen and Zhichen together again.

Many years ago, Yuwen and Zhichen were childhood sweethearts.  Their sudden reunion after more than a decade apart rekindles their forgotten or suppressed emotions.  However, Yuwen is a married woman now, and Zhichen, as conflicted as his feelings start to become, sincerely wishes to remain loyal to his good friend Liyan.

Liyan is ignorant of the inwardly emotional struggles of his friend.  He would like nothing better than if the young doctor were to set up shop in town permanently.  Surely such dear old friends as Liyan and Zhichen have many shared memories about which to reminisce fondly, and, should he stay on, Zhichen might even help Liyan to restore his family home.  Liyan also believes that his younger sister Xiu Xiu (Lu Sisi), who dotes upon the handsome young doctor and is soon to blossom into a marrying age, would make a good wife for his bachelor friend.

The film relates the interactions between these four young people over the course of the next few days.  Were this a Hollywood film, Springtime in a Small Town might assume a more salacious tone along the well-trodden lines of such films as Unfaithful or Indecent Proposal.  However, Springtime in a Small Town is an emphatically Chinese film and so embraces non-Western moral standards, remaining for the large part a quietly tender character drama.

As a film, Springtime in a Small Town exercises considerable restraint.  There are few cathartic outbursts.  Emotions or inner thoughts are conveyed mostly through suggestive gestures and fleeting eye contact.  Conversations are circumventive and exceedingly polite.  The film's subtle nuances are further enhanced by fluid and patient camera work that brings an aura of soothing calm to the story.  If anything, these camera-takes become longer as the film progresses, reflecting the prolonged hesitance within the hearts of the principal characters.  What infrequent moments of pure gaiety exist in the film are provided chiefly by the youthfully exuberant Xiu Xiu.

In short, an understated film such Springtime in a Small Town plays best to an art house audience.  Such viewers will be more tolerant and appreciative of the film's deliberate pacing and mostly internalized drama.  However, anyone with the patience to absorb the events in the film's narrative as they gradually unfold will find Tian Zhuangzhuang's directorial comeback to be a very worthy re-telling of a revered Chinese story.

BONUS TRIVIA:  In 2004, Fei Mu's original Springtime in a Small Town was recognized as the best Chinese-language film of all time by the Hong Kong Film Academy.  Tian Zhuangzhuang's own The Blue Kite was listed as 81st among the top one hundred Chinese films.

Video ***

Springtime in a Small Town is shown in a 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen format.  The warm cinematography is by celebrated cameraman Mark Lee Ping Bing, whose other works include In the Mood for Love and Millennium Mambo.  The film looks decent although the print suffers from some minor debris marks.  The picture also appears somewhat soft with a vague lack of definition in certain spots.

Audio **

The film is presented with its original Mandarin Chinese soundtrack.  Optional English subtitles are available.  As a purely dialogue-driven film with very little music, there is nothing remarkable here that should tax any home audio system.  The sound quality is adequate.

Features **

The main extra feature is an hour-long documentary.  This is basically a video diary of the making of the film, interspersed with movie clips and rehearsal scenes.  Director Tian appears frequently to offer his opinion on all manners of subjects, such as his admiration for the original film by Fei Mu or Tian's own stylistic approach to the film and its color aesthetics.  The three principal actors also relate their personal experiences from working on the set.  There is a candid discussion of difficulties encountered during the production, including role-juggling and insecurity on the part of the young actors, budgetary constraints, and even concerns over whether Tian, after his long absence from filmmaking, would be able to handle the pressure of directing once more.  Tian acquits himself quite nicely of these worries and in doing so also conveys his great love of filmmaking.  Near the end of this documentary, the original film's female lead, Wei Wei, arrives on-set to pose with the new film's cast.

Tian Zhuangzhuang's own thoughts about his remake can be heard further on a May 13, 2004 interview (16 min.) from WNYC's The Leonard Lopate Show.  Through an interpreter, Tian discusses the film's script, actors, and visual style.  Tian also offers an honest assessment of his film as compared to the original classic by Fei Mu.  This radio interview is played over still photographs of the director Tian and his interviewer, Leonard Lopate.

The remaining bonus features are various web-links plus trailers for Springtime in a Small Town, Last Life in the Universe, Time of the Wolf, and 6ixtynin9.

Summary:

Tian Zhuangzhuang's Springtime in a Small Town is a delicate homage to a classic Chinese film.  It also represents a welcomed return to relevance for one of China's more underrated contemporary directors.

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