Though it may be a phrase that’s banded about with monotones regularity, it’s actually very rare to find a film that was or is genuinely ahead of its time. Spring In A Small Town was released in 1948 to a China entering the end of an era scarred by the remnants of war and marked by conflicting opinions towards social and political change. As such, many of the prominent films released at the time sought to address the struggles and attitudes of the nation, with critically acclaimed classics such as The Spring River Flows East and Myriad of Lights depicting the hardships felt by the Chinese during the Sino-Japanese war. Such raw observations effortlessly connected with audiences on a personal level. In stark contrast, director Fei Mu’s slow-burning peek behind the vale of a breaking marriage failed to embody the themes that captivated audiences at the time.
Set against the aftermath of what was a brutally destructive war, this brooding tale thrusts us in to the centre of Zhou Yuwen and Dai Liyan’s marriage, which is slowly beginning to crumble like the house they live within. Driven apart by illness and frustration, both parties find themselves trapped by their own thoughts and unable to connect with each other on the most basic level. Their lives are further complicated by the arrival of Dai’s long-time friend Zhang Zhichen who, unbeknownst to Dai, once shared a passionate relationship with Zhou.
Driven by artistic desire instead of political statement, Mu’s film was almost immediately dismissed by both critics and the public as shallow and boring upon its release. Furthermore, politicians criticised the film for being rightist, leading Spring In A Small Town to be all but forgotten following the Communist Party’s victory in 1949. However, when the late 70s heralded the end of the Cultural Revolution, the film was able to find life again, with the release of a new print captivating audiences and forever defining Mu’s seminal work as a masterpiece.
What makes the film’s early history so tragic is it was precisely those creative elements the critics of the time dismissed as tedious and reactionary that make the film so richly rewarding when viewed with a contemporary eye. Mu’s directorial approach is meticulously observant, the camera treated as a window to a world rooted in reality. The silently shattering tableaux of destruction and rubble embody the pain and suffering still felt by many after the War. While the candid handling of subject matters such as passion and adultery, widely considered taboo at the time, continues to feel remarkably fresh and potent.
The film’s actors personify much of this power. Particularly Wei Wei, who drives the film with a discerningly subtle yet eminently effective performance. Zhou’s voiceover aches with the pains of a woman trapped by her concerns and tormented by her desires. The distance so naturally exuded between herself and Dai is agonisingly juxtaposed with silent scenes with Zhang, which ooze with the pair’s unspoken passion and longing for one another.
What is particularly perceptible when viewing the film now though is how inspiring Mu’s work has clearly been for later generations of Chinese filmmakers. The director’s utilisation of different techniques, such as the voiceover, to help establish connections with the characters and further convey their emotions remains pertinent within Chinese cinema. Look through the filmographies of established directors such as Wong Kar-Wai and Zhang Yimou and you’ll find films that are enhanced by the skills Fei Mu so smoothly demonstrates here.
Perhaps this story’s greatest heartbreak though, is that Mu never saw his film become the critical sensation it’s considered to be today. For what the director created was a film that succeeded in challenging the boundaries of cinema. That it was dismissed at the time only adds to its legend. To call Spring In A Small Town ahead of its time is not a matter that’s up for discussion… it’s a fact!
Spring In A Small Town is running for an extended period at the BFI Southbank. Full details can be found here.