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 quadrangle” between:

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 heartbreaking.