FILM (1948)

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 14 June, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 14 June, 2009, 12:00am

Spring in a Small Town

Wei Wei, Li Wei, Shi Yu, Cui Chaoming, Zhang Hongmei

Director: Fei Mu

Fei Mu, a brilliant director who died aged 45 in 1951, is suddenly back in the spotlight.

A high point of this year's Hong Kong International Film Festival was a newly-restored print of his Confucius (1940), a classic long presumed lost, which in turn has sparked renewed interest in Spring in a Small Town (1948), Fei's crowning achievement and one of the greatest motion pictures produced in Shanghai.

Spring's stark aesthetic and subtle scripting are still remarkably fresh 60 years after its premiere. The black-and-white production is simplicity itself, largely taking place within the walls of a crumbling Chinese-style estate and populated by a cast of five. The central figure is Yuwen (Wei Wei, right), a young wife who feels trapped in a dysfunctional relationship with her sick husband (Shi Yu).

The couple live with his younger sister (Zhang Hongmei) and the family's aged servant (Cui Chaoming) in an ancestral home whose ruins are symbolic of the couple's emotional decay.

The placid frustration of their existence is shattered by the arrival of a visitor (Li Wei), a long-lost friend of the husband who, as it turns out, was Yuwen's first love. With a minimum of dialogue and highly effective use of Yuwen's voice-over narration, Fei paints a portrait of intersecting lives, understated passions, and the possibility that even the chilliest of seasons might lead to a thaw.

In a way, that was what happened with the movie itself. Critically well received though not an overwhelming box office success upon its release in 1948, Spring entered a three-decade dormancy after the founding of the People's Republic the following year.

Fei's emphasis on interpersonal relationships - and bourgeois ones at that - did not fit in with the new ideology. Fortunately, the movie was well preserved in Beijing's Film Archives. After the Cultural Revolution, Spring was again screened both at home and abroad and quickly became recognised as the pinnacle of Shanghai's brief pre-PRC cinematic golden age. In 2002 it was remade by acclaimed Fifth Generation director Tian Zhuangzhuang, and while the new version stands on its own as a technically accomplished work, there's no way even a gifted filmmaker could recreate the magic spell weaved by Fei at a time when the winter of civil war looked like it might result in a new spring for the country.