Springtime in a Small Town: The best film in China’s history

ethnic china

Springtime in a Small Town: The best film in China’s history

All the rankings made in recent years, place a film, unknown to the general public, as the best film in China. It is called «Springtime in a Small Town» and was directed by Fei Mu in 1948. I had been wanting to see it for a while, but between the hassles with books, websites, and that laziness that we feel before everything that is shown in black and white, I have been letting the days go by.

Finally I have seen it, and all the critics’ praises are more than justified. It is a theatricalized film in which only a handful of people appear. A young married couple, the husband’s sister, an old servant …. and a friend who returns to his hometown after a long separation.

The story immediately shows us that something is wrong. The protagonist, the wife Zhou Yuwen, walks along the city walls, returning home with medicines for a sick husband. But the walls are in ruins, as are the walls of the house she arrives at a few minutes later, and even the relationship with the husband with whom she claims to see only three or four times a day. The first scenes are a journey, therefore, through the different aspects in which the ruin manifests itself.

This ruin is opposed, from the very beginning, by the protagonist’s sister, with an innocent and contagious joy, typical of her 16 years, and soon after by the friend who arrives home after 10 years abroad.

The joy does not last long. As soon is discovered that he was previously been engaged to his friend’s wife, and his presence in the house, which lasts for the entire duration of the film, revives romantic feelings that seemed long forgotten.

Every scene, every word, in fact that very slow speech makes the film recommendable for Chinese students, invests every movement with intentionality, showing the viewer that there is more to each scene than meets the eye.

Feelings run rampant in the main protagonists and the action approaches its climax, which ends up being resolved in an unexpected way.

If the film is an exploration of the secret recesses of the human spirit, it is at the same time a fable that shows the different responses of different people to different problems.

But the tragic love story also contains other readings. At least a historical and political one, which shows us China at a crossroads. The protagonist walks in most of the exterior scenes on the wall of the small city, a wall already almost destroyed, covered with weeds and with only a few sig of the former walls every few meters. The Wall is the symbol par excellence of imperial China, of traditional China. That world no longer exists, it has crumbled and the protagonist walks on its ruins, lives on its ruins. The house they live in, decorated in the traditional style, is also half in ruins. Apart from the rooms where they live in, which are well preserved, the walls around them are in constant deterioration. The first impression is pitiful. The house is the inner world and the wall the outside, both reflect the disappearance of that traditional China.

And the protagonists have to adjust their lives to this historical moment in which their world has crumbled. A world of which only these five characters are seen, and in which they also play highly symbolic roles.

The protagonist’s husband is ill despite being young. When he appears in scene for the first time the spectator wonders, after his wife come back from buying medicines, why being so young he is already almost incapacitated by the disease. Of a lung disease, it is said, but both his wife and his sister, which represent the practical aspects of reality, say «of the head». He clearly represents the ancient culture of China, and when we see him sick we remember that Chinese intellectuals considered their country sick, and when we see him languishing with no desire to do anything, we also remember that an attempt was made to revitalize the culture with successive movements of intellectuals. With that languishing culture, the China of the moment, the motherland, the protagonist, can no longer communicate, they barely exchange three or four words every day, let alone love, sleeping in separate rooms.

In the midst of this existential crisis, the arrival of a childhood friend fills the sick person with joy. The contrast is continuous. His friend is elegant, active, seductive, with a zest for life, always dressed in a Western-style suit, and is a doctor. He is the new culture or perhaps he simply embodies the promoters of the new culture, they, like Sun Yatsen who was also a doctor, want to cure the old culture.

In addition, it is soon discovered that he was the love of the protagonist, from whom he has been separated for 10 years. The film was released in 1948. China had suffered 10 years of war against the Japanese, from 1936 to 1945. Historical circumstances separated China from its modernizing path and forced it to stay with its old culture. But now things have changed.

The film suggests that the new culture will have to eliminate or reform the old one in order to continue preserving life in the family, the house, which is the country, and both options remain open until the end of the film, as in the human drama, until the end.

The protagonist pointing to the future concludes the political vision of this work.

The doctor has a very clear affinity  with the younger sister, as she is already the new China. Both feel a natural empathy, clean and without complexes, which overcomes all the dramas. While the main couple, especially the wife, are enclosed in a closed and suffocating universe, as was the country itself at the time.

The film, in short, is a work that deserves all its honors. Each character manages to adjust to his role and at the same time to make of it a universal archetype. The intimate and intimist atmosphere is, without the viewer realizing it, gaining a majestic air that makes it overflow the stage. The tragic love story envelops the viewer by itself, but at the same time shows him that every step, every sigh, is much more than what is seen. A great film that will leave an indelible mark on the viewer.

Title: Springtime in a small town. 小城的春.

Director: Fei Mu.

Script: Li Tianji

Year of Production: 1948.

Length: 1h, 38min.

Main performers: Wei Wei is the wife Zhou Yuwen, Shi Yu the friend Zhang Zhichen, Chaoming Cui the butler Lao Huang, – Hongmei Zhang the sister Meimei, and- Yu Shi the husband Dai Liyan.

You can watch the movie: In Chinese:

With subtitles

To cite this post: Ceinos-Arcones, Pedro, "Springtime in a Small Town: The best film in China’s history," in Ethnic China, 28 marzo 2021, https://ethnic-china.com/springtime-in-a-small-town-the-best-film-in-chinas-history/.
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