(Spring in a Small City)
Director: Fei Mu
Production: Wenhua Film Company, Shanghai, 35mm; running time: 85 minutes. Released September, 1948.
Producer: none credited; screenplay: Li Tianji; photography: Li Shengwei; music: Huang Yijun; set designer: Chi Ning; editors: Xu Ming and Wei Shunbao.
Wei Wei (
); Shi Yu (
); Li Wei (
); Zhang Hongmei (
); Cui Chaoming (
Clark, Paul, Chinese Cinema, Culture and Politics Since 1949 , New York, 1987.
Sek Kei, "The Journey of Desires," in Hong Kong International Film Festival Catalogue: A Study of Hong Kong Cinema in the Seventies (Hong Kong), 1984.
Variety (New York), 9 April 1986.
* * *
Like most Chinese films regarded in the West as art-house successes, Spring in a Small City is grounded in a popular genre—in this case, the wenyi movie. "Wenyi" is the term Chinese critics use to refer to the melodrama, and is abbreviated from the Chinese words for literature (wenxue) and art (yishu), the nearest Chinese equivalents to signify melos and drama. "Wenyi" therefore denotes a genre that is more "cultured" and cerebral (as opposed to a genre that is martial and action-oriented), biased towards women, and hosting a cast of highly literate characters. Films roughly classified as family soap operas or, more usually, love stories, fall within the realm of wenyi melodramas. Perhaps the prime characteristic of the wenyi melodrama in the love story category is the romantic triangle—the classic situation of a woman caught between her husband and lover.
In Spring in a Small City , Zhou Yuwen (Wei Wei) is the married female protagonist who has been nursing a sick husband, Dai Liyan (Shi Yu), for most of their marriage. One day, Dai's best friend, Zhang Zhichen (Li Wei) turns up in their dilapidated mansion, bombed during the war. Coincidentally, Zhichen happens to be Yuwen's former lover. During Zhichen's stay, Yuwen attempts to rekindle their affair. An extraordinary seduction scene takes place in which Yuwen wavers between libertarian abandonment and conscientious adherence to her personal obligations to custom and duty. As she seduces Zhichen, Yuwen intermittently covers her face with a silk scarf—an action that reveals her moral dilemma: should she leave her husband or see through her duties as a wife? The silk scarf seems to imply a tone of light-hearted coquetry but is in fact, a fitting symbol for the psychological fragility of Yuwen and the delicate caution with which she approaches her dilemma.
Spring in a Small City can be seen as the acme of the wenyi movie because its high artistic and stylistic achievement has elevated the theme of the romantic triangle into classic heights. It offers a lasting model of wenyi movies that has as its centre a woman of repressed desires poised to make certain choices—whether to take the plunge (to fulfill her desires) or to pull back from the brink. The aesthetic and psychological momentum of the film makes clear that Yuwen's choice is not a simple one. The choice is between instinct (love) and institution (marriage), personal motivation and tradition. Should she leave her husband, she discards all that is implied by tradition (repression and mental agony along with the sense of duty, loyalty, and security). Although her choice in the end to stay with her husband is determined by events (the husband attempts suicide and is saved by Zhichen, who is a doctor), it is as if tradition has proven to be too innate a factor to be easily discarded—it is something, in fact, that could have pre-determined the outcome.
Tradition, in the form of an ethical conservatism, is the lynchpin of the movie. All the characters are bound by such a tradition. Director Fei Mu works on the Confucian maxim of "desire bound by ethics" ( fahu qing, zhihu li: literally, to express emotion or desire, to stop at the point of ethics). His style is completely refined by this maxim. He punctuates his scenes with subtle reminders of musical and poetic rhythm; his sets are spare but filled with reminders of a once opulently endowed manor-house; and Yuwen's narrative, which carries the psychological weight of the whole film, is never overloaded—it complements the poetic intensity of her desires and illustrates the ethical limits of her role as a Chinese woman and wife.
The inherent conservatism of the tradition theme, with its humanitarian, moral-ethical considerations, has never come out so succinctly in the wenyi genre or even tackled with such aesthetic conviction in the history of Chinese cinema (one film that comes close is Fei Mu's own earlier classic Filial Piety/Tian Lun , made in 1935—a wenyi film of another order, dealing with the family as the highest of Confucian institutions). It is perhaps this factor that has put the film in cold storage in Mainland China all these years. Fei Mu's aesthetic style was dismissed in Cheng Jihua's standard History of the Development of Chinese Cinema as "playing up the decadent emotions of a declining bourgeois class" (translation is author's own).
In addition, the tone and mood of the film (exacerbated by its postwar setting amidst ruins and featuring a sick husband whose bleak outlook on life leads his wife to contemplate an affair with his friend, her ex-lover) was seen as too negative for the period just when the Communist Party was on the verge of victory in the Civil War. The film's critical fortunes revived slightly with the opening up of China in the late '70s; it was shown for the first time outside of China in Hong Kong in 1983 and exerted an influence on films such as Stanley Kwan's Rouge/Yanzhi Kou (1989). But it is only now in the 1990s that this masterpiece is beginning to be exposed to the world beyond China and Hong Kong.