Spring in a Small Town

12/27/2009

China / 1948 / Mandarin

Directed by Mu Fei

With Wei Wei, Yu Shi, Wei Li

Still from 'Spring in a Small Town'In the opening sequence to Mu Fei’s Spring in a Small Town, a young, married woman named Yuwen walks home from the market, asking herself what it is that keeps her from leaving her daily routine and running away for good. The answer, it would seem, lies beyond her town’s walls, and she seems afraid to truly contemplate it. Or perhaps she is wistful for missed opportunities, choices that have come and gone from her life. She lives ensconced in stifling seclusion with her husband, Liyan, an ill and terminally depressed householder, whom she rarely sees or speaks to. His illness may be a psychosomatic one, and his younger, sunnier sister Meimei, who also lives with them, is bewildered by his protracted state of ennui. Meanwhile Yuwen is quietly resigned to it. The one aging, loyal servant who attends to the crumbling estate is as unable, or as unwilling, as Yuwen or Meimei to cheer up the emotionally catatonic master, who laments his family’s loss of wealth and status following China’s ruinous war with Japan.

Into this dismal situation drops, seemingly out of nowhere, Zhichen, an old friend of Liyan’s whom he has not seen in over ten years, immediately breaking the spell over the household. Now a successful doctor, he wins the family over with his charm and worldliness. His presence generates a certain amount of ambivalence, however, as it becomes clear that he and Yuwen have a history from her premarital days. As they are reacquainted after all this time, she starts to become possessive of Zhichen, suspecting him of a relationship with her young sister-in-law. The master, of course, thinks Meimei and his friend getting together is a splendid idea.

Still from 'Spring in a Small Town'Yuwen’s reconstituted feelings for Zhichen awaken a dark yearning in her, not previously intimated, as she speaks to him in the muted nighttime interiors of the manor’s inner recesses. Outside, in the observable realm, the setting looks curiously flat, given the film’s romantic sweep and braw atmosphere, reflecting the loss of essence and relevance suffered by the house – and by extension, the family – in a changing culture. The emotional register is kept appropriately faint throughout much of the film, almost surpassing even an Ozu-like state of stifled passion within a nimbus of cordiality.

The master’s provincial style of dress look appropriately outdated, a reminder of the feudal society of which he is a faded vestige. His manner contrasts with the educated and well-traveled doctor’s urbane appearance. Zhichen’s way of interacting with women is subtly different from that of the master of the house, more modern. One can foresee him sustaining little more than a paltry re-education in the looming revolution, whereas Liyan and his ilk, standing on fragile ground as it is, have but a pig’s whisper of existence lying ahead.

In a roundabout way, the growing obsession that Yuwen has for her and her husband’s old friend strengthens the marital bond that had so far survived only in a perfunctory way, by giving her and Liyan something in common, and a shared focus of their benevolence in Zhichen. And while her life of provincial tedium, alone with her thoughts, proved a ripe stage for fantasies of escape, it also presented a fair bit of security found in routine. Before Zhichen’s return, her days seemed to happen at a remove from time itself, just as the eternal and reliable dreariness of the house belies its violent history and uncertain fate. The option of running off with the doctor, if it were ever to come to the surface, would not present as easy a choice as one might think. Yuwen’s resolve to leave seems flimsy and unaccustomed when compared to the strength of her imagination.

The wall along the path that encircles the town, the one which Yuwen follows every day to and from the market, is broken and easily traversed. While the ruins encircling her are pitiable, there is something enduring and inscrutable in their merely existing. Continuing in this motif, Liyan sits by the ruined wall of his family home, idly restacking the bricks in a loose construction. So goes his languid compulsion, in the depths of depression. The various walls are as important to the characters as they continue to abide the social constructs that give them refuge in the illusion of reality. When an element in one of their walls begins to break free or falls off entirely, they are at pains to replace it.

Still from 'Spring in a Small Town'

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One Response to “Spring in a Small Town”

  1. Thanks for this write-up, I got to see a print of this film a while back and was quite taken with it. Really hope more of Mu Fei’s become more readily available to see one day. From what I’ve read it sounds like he worked in a number of different styles and wrote some interesting theories on filmmaking.

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