Widely regarded as the best Chinese film ever made and now newly restored, Spring in a Small Town is released in selected cinemas nationwide on 20 June as part of the BFI’s major exploration of Chinese cinema.
Focusing on people rather than politics, director Fei Mu’s greatest achievement perfectly captures the dilemma of desire raging against loyalty, and sits alongside both the tender family dramas of Japan’s Yasujiro Ozu and the wonderful post-war humanist realist cinema of René Clément, Satyajit Ray and Vittorio De Sica.
Set in the aftermath of the Sino-Japanese War (1937-45), Spring in a Small Town tells the story of the once prosperous Dai family. The patriarch Liyan (Shi Yu) is a shadow of his former self, an invalid who spends his days lost in nostalgia. His marriage to the beautiful Yuwen (Wei Wei) has become little more than a passionless duty of care on her part. Meanwhile Liyan’s teenage sister Xiu (Zhang Hongmei), too young to remember the past, plays cheerfully in the rubble of their home. Across the broken town wall and into their world comes Liyan’s childhood friend Zhang (Li Wei), an adventurous doctor from Shanghai and an old flame of Yuwen. In the ensuing love triangle Yuwen finds herself torn between the two men, while Xiu has her own ideas about the future.
Noah Cowan, season curator for TIFF, who programmed the Century of Chinese Cinema season opening at BFI Southbank in June comments:
“Spring in a Small Town is the apotheosis of Golden Age Shanghai cinema, at once a deeply literary work that forges unexpected connections between pre- and post-Republican prose forms, and a breathtaking visual masterpiece that marries symbolism derived from ancient landscape painting with innovative camera and editing ideas.”
Now acknowledged as a formative influence by Zhang Yimou (House of Flying Daggers), Chen Kaige (Farewell My Concubine), Jia Zhangke (Still Life), and Wong Kar-wai (In the Mood for Love), the film was made before the Communist takeover of China in 1949 when it was subsequently suppressed by the new regime. Fei Mu fled to Hong Kong and died just two years later aged 44. His films were forgotten and he was shunned as a “rightist” until the 1980s when the China Film Archive (which had been closed down during the Cultural Revolution of the late 60s) was re-opened and a new print of Spring in a Small Town was made.
In 2005 it was declared No. 1 in the Best 100 Chinese Motion Pictures announced at the 24th Hong Kong Film Awards. A re-make as Springtime in a Small Town by Tian Zhuangzhuang was released in 2002, but this will be the first time that the original film has opened theatrically in the UK.
During 2014 the BFI is making a wealth of previously hard-to-see Chinese films available in the UK as it presents the largest and most comprehensive exploration of Chinese cinema ever to be undertaken here.
A second major Chinese classic will be released in cinemas nationwide this summer.