Springtime in a Small Town –
rated – SIMMERING
Brief Encounter in rural China
This elegant, quiet and slow-moving film is the first film in 10 years
from Chinese director Tian Zhuangzhuang (The Blue Kite, 1993, Horse
Thief, 1986). The Blue Kite was banned by the Chinese authorities as
being too critical of the Cultural Revolution. The producers of
this film have dedicated it to the pioneers of Chinese cinema, and it
is indeed a remake of a Chinese classic, Spring in a Small Town (Fei
Mu, 1948), which I haven’t seen.
In mood and theme it can be compared to Brief Encounter (David Lean,
1945), and also to the recent Far From Heaven (Todd Haynes, 2002) and
In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar-Wei, 2000). But somehow it is much
more mysterious than either of those films. The story involves a “love
1. the morbidly ill husband Dai Liyan (exquisitely played by Wu Jun),
2. the dutiful but cold wife Yuwen (the delicately lovely Hu Jingfan),
3. the husband’s handsome childhood friend Zhang Zhichen (played by Xin
Bai Qing), a doctor, who suddenly shows up in the small rural town
shortly after the end of the Japanese invasion during World War 2, and
4. Dai Liyan’s 16-year-old sister Dai Xu (Lu Si Si), who develops a
crush on Zhang Zhichen.
Yuwen’s confusion and her changeable emotions are unflinchingly
explored, and there is no overt sentimentality, even though the pain of
this love story is intense and very painful.
As the film opens it is difficult to tell when it is taking place. The
houses are traditional Chines, the countryside is rural, and the
character wear traditional garb. The camera moves slowly but constantly
across the frame. It observes the characters from a distance, often
from behind trees, walls, columns, the bars of a bed, and the wheels of
a train. This is one of many techniques the director uses to distance
us from the characters at first.
The train brings Zhang Zhichen who is destined to disturb the Chekovian
torpor of the Dai Liyan household, which also includes only one old
retainer, Lao Huang (Ye Xiao Keng). The first scene between Huang and
Liyan with Huang fussing over Liyan’s scarf could be straight out of
The Cherry Orchard.
In this world, ruined from the bombing though it is, everything has its
place and every person has their duty. The cinematographer (Mark Li
Ping-Bing, who photographed In the Mood for Love (2000) for Wong
Kar-Wei) shows us this world in muted tones of blues, browns and greys,
with the occasional red in the form of a lovely liquid amber tree in
the courtyard or Yuwen’s sweater.
Things progress slowly, but, as in Chekov, the emotional stakes are
gradually rising to breaking-point. Along the way we have much
symbolism and even a couple of musical interludes – one critic
has compared the scene where the 4 main characters go boating on a
river and sing a song to the tune of The Blue Danube Waltz, as one
worthy of Renoir. But for me the standout scene is the one where Dai
Liyan stands in his garden, leans on a tree and weeps. It’s