Some say it’s the best Chinese movie ever made, so I had to check out Fei Mu’s 1948 film Spring in a Small Town. I couldn’t locate a DVD or version with English subtitles; Yes Asia offers three different VCDs, two without titles and one with traditional Chinese. I ordered the one with subtitles, which turns out to be from an old print of poor quality with a few gaps in the soundtrack. For the English-dependent, it helps somewhat that there’s a translated transcript available online (see below).
The Chinese filmmaker Tian Zhuangzhuang remade the picture in 2002. His version has the same Chinese title but for some reason is known in English as Springtime in a Small Town (review here; trailer here).
Spring in a Small Town is clearly influenced by immediate post-war films from Europe, especially Italy, and their themes of the culture destroyed vs. what persists. However, whereas the European pictures aimed at “realism,” Fei Mu’s drama is more deliberately theatrical. With only five characters and limited sets, it could easily be an adaptation of play, although I don’t believe that’s the case; instead, I think it’s adapted from a novel. In general, evolving from a highly stylized performing arts tradition, Chinese cinema seems more comfortable with a transparently theatrical narrative presentation than its Western counterpart.
Made in 1948, a historical no-man’s-land between old China and new China, Spring in a Small Town can ponder questions of where the venerable nation can or should go next, but can’t offer a firm recommendation. Like the war-wrecked Dai’s homestead, the past is an unsustainable ruin; dwelling on it excessively leads to decline and failure, as is the fate of Dai Liyan. There are no easy answers for his wife, Yu Wen, the conflicted heroine at the point of the story’s love triangle, and similarly, at the time this film was made, China was emerging into a cold and uncertain spring. Even today, the nation hasn’t fully healed from those divisive times. The persistence of these political and cultural questions into the present may account for this film’s ongoing popularity and artistic resonance.