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Spring in a Small Town
Fei Mu


Taking place in a ruined family compound after the Sino-Japanese War, the film tells the story of the once prosperous Dai family. The husband and patriarch, Liyan (Shi Yu) is physically challenged, and spends his days in the courtyard nostalgic for the past. His marriage to Yuwen (Wei Wei) has long been rendered loveless, though both still feel concern for the other. Liyan's young teenage sister Xiu (Zhang Hongmei), meanwhile, is too young to remember the past, and stays cheerful and playful in the ruins of her home. Lao Huang (Cui Chaoming) is an old faithful servant of the Dai family.
Into this dreary but unchanging existence comes an unexpected visit from Liyan's childhood friend Zhang Zhichen (Li Wei), a doctor from Shanghai and a former flame of Yuwen before she met her husband. The rest of the film details the love quadrangle among Yuwen, Liyan, Zhichen and Xiu. Yuwen is conflicted between her love for Zhichen and her loyalty to her husband and his family. Liyan loves his wife, but feels unworthy of her and ashamed of himself. Xiu, newly turned sixteen, develops romantic feelings for Zhichen - who himself is conflicted between his love for Yuwen and his loyalty to his friend. That Yuwen and Zhichen still love each other soon became apparent to Liyan and Xiu. Liyan attempts suicide, but is resuscitated by Zhichen. Zhichen departs, and Huang and Xiu walk him off to the train station. He promises to return in a year. Yuwen, watching from the wall, is joined by her husband by her side as Zhichen departs.


  • Wei Wei (韋偉) as Zhou Yuwen (周玉紋 Zhōu Yùwén), the heroine;
  • Shi Yu (石羽) as Dai Liyan (戴禮言 Dài Lǐyán), her husband;
  • Li Wei as Zhang Zhichen (章志忱 Zhāng Zhìchén), Dai Liyan's childhood friend and Yuwen's former lover
  • Cui Chaoming as Lao Huang (老黃 lǎo Huáng), Dai and Yuwen's loyal servant;
  • Zhang Hongmei as Dai Xiu (戴秀 Dài Xiù), Dai Liyan's young sister.


Made after the war and the so-called "Solitary Island" period of Shanghai film-making, Spring in a Small Town, unlike its leftist predecessors of the 1930s, was a more intimate affair with only tangential references to the politics of the day. Indeed, the film can be distinguished from those earlier works by its more mature treatment of inter-personal conflicts, particularly in the sense that there are no villains or antagonists except for time and circumstance. Even the husband, who ostensibly stands between Zhou Yuwen and Zhang Zhichen's love, is an inherently decent and good human being.
Because of this apparent lack of "political" grounding, Spring in a Small Town was rejected by the Communists as rightist or reactionary, and was ignored following the Communist victory in China in 1949.[4] The film was only able to find its audience and had a resurgence in popularity after the China Film Archive made a new print in the early 1980s.[5] Today it is considered one of the classics of Chinese film. In 2005 the Hong Kong Film Awards Association named it the greatest Chinese film ever made.[6] Sixth Generation film director Wang Chao also declared the film to be one of his favorites and Fei Mu the director he most admired.[7] In 2002, the film was remade by Tian Zhuangzhuang as Springtime in a Small Town.

I first became aware of Fei Mu's masterly Chinese drama just over a decade ago, via a very intelligent and heartfelt modern remake/homage: Tian Zhuangzhuang's film Springtime in a Small Town. At that stage, I could only get hold of the original on a fuzzy VHS copy. So it is such a pleasure to see this big-screen re-release, written by Li Fianji and taken from his own short story, part of the BFI season celebrating a century of Chinese cinema.
It is a powerful, yet exquisitely subtle emotional drama, something to be compared with Ophüls, or Mizoguchi, or with a Hollywood studio picture by Douglas Sirk or an early David Lean. The resemblance to Henry James's The Golden Bowl or The Wings of the Dove is also notable. The depressed and hypochondriac Liyan (Shi Yu) lives in a provincial town in 1948, in a house still damaged by Japanese bombing in the war, and which he cannot afford to repair. He is depressed by these ruins and by the stagnancy of his marriage to the beautiful Yuwen (Wei Wei) from whom he has emotionally retreated. He is delighted when his old childhood friend Zhang (Li Wei), shows up to visit, a dynamic and personable doctor in a western-style suit.
Yet Liyan does not realise that he was a former lover of Yuwen's, and her demure manner turns into suppressed coquetry and passion; something like a clandestine affaire de coeur begins to flower between them, but oppressed by fear and guilt, they entertain the notion of a future wedding between Zhang and Yuwen's kid sister Xiu (Zhang Hongmei). For reasons no one can explain, everyone is drawn to taking walks by the ruined city wall. Perhaps there is something about damaged limits or vulnerable barriers. There is a captivating subtlety in the glances, smiles, brief hand-holdings; it has an inspired emotional fluency and candour. This is a film to fall in love with.

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