This year, the BFI has embarked on a glorious season of screenings that celebrate the last one hundred years of Chinese cinema. Acting as something of a centrepiece is a film that they have been attempting to licence for UK distribution for years, Fei Mu’s Spring in a Small Town (1948). Often considered its nation’s greatest film, it has now been restored by the Chinese Film Archive who have made significant strides recently in reaching out to showcase the country’s cinematic heritage abroad. This crowning achievement is an exquisite melodrama full of yearning and regret. A clear influence on the cinema of Wong Kar-wai, this is a tale of simmering passions held at bay by obligation.
In a devastated post-war town lives Yuwen (Wei Wei), the dutiful wife of the sickly Liyan (Yu Shi). The fall of his wealthy family has left him emasculated and unable to provide his beloved with the life that she deserves. Ardor is reignited – though not between spouses – with the arrival of Zhichen (Wei Li), Liyan’s best friend who is also Yuwen’s first love of years earlier. The couple fan old flames and whilst they desperately attempt to avoid getting burnt, the atmosphere sits precariously on the edge of an inferno. The stuffy milieu of the homestead becomes pregnant with unspoken desires drawn out by Mu’s unusual but effective choice to dissolve within scenes. Such a transition is typically employed between two separate sequences, yet here enhances an overpowering sense of time crawling along.
The central triumvirate are all helpless to truly affect their situations and this makes the restrained interludes between would- be sweethearts all the more painful and poignant. The fact that they play out in near silence, only heightens the tension. Wei Wei imbues Yuwen with an unceasing rigidity that initially appears a wooden and old- fashioned performance until one realises that this is precisely the point; her traditional values explaining her unwavering stiff upper lip. Composition and framing additionally reinforce individual characters and the shifting relationship dynamics meaning that the voice offer afforded Yuwen is unnecessary and at times distracts. It’s a minor quibble though, in what is otherwise a masterclass; with few sets and even less players, Mu truly has crafted one of Chinese cinema’s quietly devastating landmarks. Spring in a Small Town explores the anguish and uncertainty of the late forties through a tale of repressed love that can’t help but move you.