Springtime in a Small Town

English Title: Springtime in a Small Town

Country of Origin: China

Studio: Beijing Film Studio

Director: Tian Zhuangzhuang

Producer(s): William Kong, Li Xiaowan, Tang Yatming

Screenplay: Ah Cheng, Li Tianji

Cinematographer: Mark Lee Ping-bing

Art Director: James David Goldmark, Tu Xinran

Editor: Xu Jianping

Runtime: 116 minutes

Genre: Drama

Year: 2002

Volume: Chinese


Zhou Yuwen is a housewife in a small, war-damaged Chinese town. She spends her time caring for her ailing husband, Dai Liyan, and his young sister, but he has begun to treat her poorly due to his own self-hatred. An old friend of Dai, a doctor named Zhang Zichen (who was also once in love with Zhou) arrives for a visit after being estranged for ten years, and immediately both his and Yuwen’s feelings seem to return as the four spend ostensibly a happy few days together. Yuwen and Zichen begin to see more of each other, but Liyan suggests that Zichen and his young sister become engaged, something that the former dismisses. At the latter’s sixteenth birthday party he gets drunk and almost sleeps with Yuwen. Subsequently, a deterioration in Liyan’s health seems to spell an end to their time with each other. 


Springtime in a Small Town marked Tian Zhuangzhuang’s return to feature film-making following an absense of almost a decade, during which time he had been officially ostracized as a result of his hugely controversial family drama The Blue Kite (1993). The decision to remake Fei Mu’s 1948 classic was perhaps a calculated one: calculated, that is, to pay homage to a notable progenitor who himself suffered (albeit in the wake of his death) at the hands of the communist authorities. Certainly Tian and writer Ah Cheng’s adaptation sticks incredibly closely to its source in terms of story outline and characterization, retaining every beat of the original’s love-triangle narrative wherein an ailing man (Dai Liyan) and his unhappy wife (Zhou Yuwen) are shaken from their staid routine by the arrival of the former’s estranged friend and latter’s one-time lover. The setting of post-World War II China in an all-but-destroyed village is retained, as is the hermetic locus of action within the similarly dilapidated house of Liyan. Indeed, but for one notable addition (a scene at Liyan’s younger sister’s school in which Zichen teaches the children to dance the waltz), the removal of the original’s prominent voiceover by Yuwen and a slightly modified ending, the two works are almost identical. 

However, academic though these changes may ostensibly seem, they in fact serve to elucidate key aspects of the film’s thematic. Even small alterations such as the characterization of Liyan’s young sister, who is here more sternly reprimanded for her childish behaviour, serves to place her more overtly on the cusp of womanhood, something that then teases out the situations of the other characters who themselves remain suspended between dichotomous feelings and actions (life and death on Liyan’s part; two men on Yuwen’s, etc.). Even the timeframe of the film catches China itself as an entity in-between, caught as it was after World War II between the Japanese occupation and the 1949 Communist Revolution.       

Cheng (a novelist whose story Haizi wang was adapted by Chen Kaige into King of the Children [1987]) was already adept at chamber narratives; and although such a narrative mode was slightly anathema to Tian, his choice of Mark Lee Ping-bing as cinematographer (surely as good a candidate for the DOP-as-auteur as Chris Doyle) reaps untold rewards. Lee has long been Hou Hsiao-hsien’s cinematographer, as well as working with other notable directors such as Wong Kar-wai, Hirokazu Kore-eda and Tran Anh Hung. His long take/long shot/deep focus methodology, coupled with the trademark gentle lull and subtly modulating perspective of his slowly, often almost imperceptibly, moving camera (which at times views the characters obliquely, through frames, glass or lattice panels), simultaneously liberates and subtly shapes and guides our perception of the characters and their drama. This coupled with a carefully balanced colour mise en scène that in exteriors plays off chalky browns and dull greens against the red of the newborn seasonal blossoms on the trees in Liyan’s garden facilitates a contrastive sense of tension, a tentative seed of hope amidst devastation, closeness amidst distance, love among the ruins (even if the precise nature of that love is amorphous and difficult to discern).            

This, of course, is in direct contradistinction to the narrative methodology of The Blue Kite, which was predicated on a sweeping sense of how the torrents of socio-historicity continually invade and corrupt individual lives. Springtime in a Small Town is built on a restrained and intimate vision of personal suffering figuratively abstracted from society and from history, something that feeds into a concern with the ways in which exterior or fateful precepts contribute to constructions of selfhood, and similarly how one’s feelings about oneself define one’s relationships with others. The film won the San Marco Prize at the 2002 Venice Film Festival, and the ecstatic reviews garnered worldwide proved that Tian was still a major director, and his magnificent, almost uncontainably beautiful and melodious film does full justice to the original, and there can be no higher praise than that.

Author of this review: Adam Bingham