Director Fei Mu’s Spring in a Small Town (1948) has been hailed as one of the greatest (if not the greatest) Chinese films ever made. The film acquired a strange reputation and almost notoriety for being banned by the Chinese government. While most films are banned for being too political one way or another, Spring in a Small Town was banned for not being political enough. There is indeed an almost complete absence of any political statement or judgment (except comments on the ruinous effects of the war), and the film focuses exclusively on the life of a small family unit and a crumbling marriage. It is with a shock that I realized, upon finishing the movie, that only five people ever appeared onscreen. Especially to the modern viewer, accustomed to not only many more characters but to a large number of extras, the tiny cast serves to emphasize (perhaps subconsciously) the feeling of hopelessness, sameness, and routine that haunts the main character. The story is the most basic and classic: Yuwen is trapped in a dreary town and a loveless marriage when her former lover, whom she has not seen for ten years, comes to visit and throws her into an emotional turmoil. Fei Mu does a masterful job of giving us a glimpse into the tedium-tortured, hopeless spirit of Yuwen. There is a feeling of claustrophobia pervading the film; we see the same few people, the same few locations, the same few props, and the continuous lack of emotional expression. The character of Yuwen centers on the repression of her feelings and actress Wei Wei conveys this repression stunningly. She never makes a single relaxed gesture, moving as if every muscle in her body is tense. She clasps her hands almost spasmodically, as if she can hold herself together by doing so. While all the performances are impressive, it is Wei’s that stands out; with her body language, her long, sad looks, attempting to express the emotions she refuses to speak, and her wavering between the duty of a faithful wife and desire for her former lover.
One of the most fascinating aspects of the way Spring in a Small Town is edited is the use of fadeouts. In many scenes, especially those between Yuwen and her former lover Zhang Zhichen, Mu uses fadeouts instead of traditional cuts within the scene, foregrounding the idea that something has happened that the viewer has not seen. This technique inventively emphasizes the spaces between the characters, the things they leave unsaid, and the emotions they refuse to disclose. Mu thus links what we associate with a lapse of time (fadeouts) with he emotional state of the characters. As many reviewers have noted, the setting and props used in the film are very symbolic. Yuwen wanders around the crumbling town wall, reflecting on how its ruin parallels her marriage. Her husband compares the wrecked wall of his garden (the bricks of which he halfheartedly tries to restack) to his failing health and lost fortune. As one scholar points out, Zhang Zhichen enters the household not through the front door, which he finds locked, but through the break in the garden wall, symbolizing his intrusion on the family unit through their weakness. Overall, in its maddeningly leisurely pace and almost languorous, fluid camera movements, Spring in a Small Town predates Antonioni’s Italian trilogy by over a decade, sharing with those films a kind of pointless desperation and an inability to properly convey emotion.