By Andrew Chan
Since we know so little in this country about pre-'80s mainland Chinese cinema, you would think the recently released DVD of Spring in a Small Town—ranked by the Hong Kong Film Awards in 2005 as the greatest Chinese movie ever made—would warrant more coverage from film journalists than it has received.
Few in the U.S. had seen Fei Mu's 1948 classic when Tian Zhuangzhuang's remake appeared in 2002, but it has been gradually moving out of obscurity ever since. Though there have been screenings in New York and London, an all-region DVD produced out of Guangzhou last December, and full downloads available on YouTube and Internet Archive, this new release marks the first time American cinephiles will be able to find the movie at their local video stores. For the small L.A.-based distribution company Cinema Epoch, which is also presenting seven other rarities as a part of its Chinese Film Classics Collection, the achievement is admittedly far from ideal: there seems to have been no effort made to clean up Spring's fuzzy images or uneven soundtrack, provide bonus materials for historical context, or sync the English subtitles with the Mandarin dialogue. But at a time when Western access to such films remains limited, any opportunity to discover Fei's work should earn our attention.
On a recent trip to China, I spotted Spring in almost every decently well-stocked DVD store I went into, and, at least on college campuses, both the Fei and Tian versions are well-known. This ubiquity is a far cry from the original's previous life as a discarded "rightist" artifact, condemned by Communists in the late '40s as decadent and bourgeois. The film's rocky history serves as an indicator of China's conflicted relationship with its own cinema and the roles both political dogma and cultural amnesia have played in the nation's movie-going. Since the early '80s, when the state-run China Film Archive started making new prints of its holdings, China has had the chance to reexamine its cinematic legacy, but despite the ascension of Spring, the attempt to establish a Chinese film canon raises more questions than answers. Social values and aesthetic choices now taken for granted in American art—individuality, realism, provocation—have been discouraged in Chinese filmmaking for most of the twentieth century, to the point where many of the Chinese films regarded as masterpieces in the U.S. have been banned by the government and are often only found on bootlegs.
It was made clear on perhaps the grandest scale yet—when Gao Xingjian (a playwright and novelist exiled from and mostly unread in his homeland) won the 2000 Nobel Prize in Literature—that China's artistic reputation on the international scene does not dovetail with the country's government-sanctioned self-perception. And, according to critic Shelly Kraicer, the China Film Archive still determines which classics are made available, thereby circumscribing the version of Chinese film history eligible for study. Within the blurring borderlines of contemporary cinema, China remains an example of movies' power to reflect, manipulate, restore, or undermine concepts like national identity. But the modern viewer will probably come away from Fei's film wondering what all the political fuss is about. Spring is the kind of romantic melodrama not uncommon in Chinese entertainment, and any political sentiments it might express beneath the surface don't fall along immediately apparent party lines. In the West, the story draws comparisons to paradigms not of protest but of delicate social observation and heartache: Chekhov, Edith Wharton, David Lean's Brief Encounter.
Fei's film, which is a faithful rendition of a short story by Li Tianji, subtly places itself in the context of literary tradition; the classical "zhi" in its Chinese title (Xiao cheng zhi chun) evokes a creative history the Cultural Revolution sought to destroy and contrasts with the unifying vernacular Communism promoted. All of the film's five characters are introduced with a subtitle upon their first appearance, giving the opening scenes the feeling of theater. As is fitting for a film so concerned with the time warp between one era and the next, Fei matches these traditional appearances with modernist techniques. Like Brief Encounter, Spring is narrated by an unhappily married woman on the verge of infidelity. Her wandering, whispery voiceover splits the film into multiple layers: we can hear the wife's emotions as we see how she tries to suppress them; we witness the present tense turning into the past as her storytelling accompanies the action taking place; and we watch a paradox develop as the narration peters out and our heroine becomes an enigma clouded by coyness and unarticulated desire, a supporting player in her own life. The film is stunning when it lingers quietly on images of her desperation, which often seems not for a person but for all the time—both past and future—she feels is permanently lost to her.
The film's central love triangle forms when a man she fell in love with years ago stumbles into her courtyard, and she discovers that he was a close friend of her husband. War has dispersed them, and while the friend has become a successful doctor in Shanghai, the woman has been acting as a nurse to her sickly husband, trapped in an inherited home whose attractive interiors remain remarkably preserved amid ruins. The tantalizing suggestion of future possibilities manifests everywhere: in the repeated success the wife and friend have in finding time alone together; in the sympathy with which the husband asks about the nature of their relationship; in the woman's perky teenage sister-in-law, who becomes a symbol of unfettered youth. But with characters who turn out to be so self-sacrificing, so tangled in their loyalties to past ideals, romance cannot take precedence over family responsibility. Lapses into betrayal are short-lived, and as the insular setting becomes more and more claustrophobic (even the exteriors are locked in by a wall that surrounds the town and obstructs our view of the outside world), the would-be lovers resign themselves to a philosophy of artful passivity, according to which all their bottled-up romantic and erotic disappointments will constitute the poetic core of their lives. In the film's final shot, the woman stands resolutely beneath an overwhelming stretch of sky, having rejected the love of her choice to stand by the commitments and little kindnesses of her arranged marriage.
Just as Citizen Kane is the intellectual and emotional inferior of many American masterpieces that have followed it, Spring's meditation on small-town disillusionment proves to be no match for the thematic breadth of a director like Jia Zhang-ke, who has flourished with the freedoms of being independent of a studio and relying on foreign admirers. But, like Kane, Fei's film remains a revelation, moving and memorable for its exploration of film vocabulary. The lyricism of its compositions, the languorous pacing of its seasonal story, and the startling flickers of feeling we get from Wei Wei in the lead role gain even greater significance when viewed in conversation with Tian's lesser Springtime in a Small Town, which bears an opening dedication to China's master filmmakers.
While China emerged as an important contemporary cinema in the mid-'80s, its early pioneers—the lineage by which we might connect influences to current artists—are largely unknown to American audiences. New Chinese films come to us with a clear historical and social background, but the aesthetic contexts we are able to recognize don't extend very far into the past. It has been convenient to compare other Chinese-language directors to European precursors—for instance, to call the Malaysian-Taiwanese Tsai Ming-liang a new Bertolucci and Hong Kong's Wong Kar-wai a new Godard—and to be reasonably sure those descriptions approximate their styles. But such analogies are not as easily drawn for the most prominent mainland filmmakers (a group of whom were classmates at the Beijing Film Academy). How does a Chinese filmmaker find inspiration in the cinematic history of his homeland when so much of it is either government-approved propaganda or films that have been condemned in his country? What canon can he turn to? Regardless of its questionable merits, Tian's Springtime—made ten years after his devastating Blue Kite led the government to ban him from the movie industry—is heartbreaking for the emotions that fueled its production. I can't name a more fascinating recent example of a director seeking and exploring native influence, and sustaining throughout a film the urgency of such an abstract search.
Springtime's effectiveness is made possible by its flaws. Tian's actors, who are all too attractive for their roles, stumble through their performances as if they were in a high school play, and one gets the sense of a younger generation unsure of how to pay tribute to the monumental examples of its predecessors. Even more interesting and pivotal is the contribution of Taiwanese cinematographer Mark Lee Ping-bin, a regular Hou Hsiao-hsien collaborator who has recently proved, particularly in this film and last year's Three Times, how much he was responsible for the sensual palette and movement of In the Mood for Love (the credit for which the press has usually assigned to his genius co-lenser Christopher Doyle). The switch from black-and-white to color has given this restrained material a visual luxuriance, so that Fei's undivided attention to bodies and faces is replaced by the distractions of lacquer and wood carvings. Tian's Springtime takes place in Wuzhen, a decidedly unglamorous town that Lee's camera has taken great pains to prettify; where Fei's film included shots (similar to Cartier-Bresson's famous photograph) that peered into the courtyard from a large hole in a wall, Lee glosses over such marks of devastation by saturating them in color.
But Lee's cinematography does take Fei's film into the future, suggesting through its modern approach the fulfillment of lineage and influence. Markedly different from the style of Tian's previous collaborator Hou Yong, Lee's darkly lit and boldly outlined reimagining of the 1948 Spring establishes a link between Fei's poetic melodrama and the slow, melancholy mood pieces that have brought Hong Kong and Taiwan to Western audiences: Wong Kar-wai's In the Mood for Love, 2046, and The Hand, and Hou Hsiao-hsien's Flowers of Shanghai and Three Times. The affinities between Fei's classic and these contemporary works are not simply aesthetic. These films are woozy, sometimes fetishistic evocations of love found and lost; all of them mournfully but quietly accept the unfulfilling nature of eros in a tone distinct from European and American means of dramatizing romance, and all of them recognize how vulnerable relationships are to the social restrictions and upheavals that shape Chinese life. Tian's imperfect tribute helps to further substantiate for Western viewers the retroactive installation of Spring as the greatest work of Chinese cinema. Like any other canonical work, Fei's film reasserts its beauty and modifies its purpose in the imaginations of the living.
Andrew Chan is a poet and film critic currently studying at UNC-Chapel Hill. He is the creator of the blog Movie Love.