Get reel: Hong Kong Film Archive to show 1948's Spring in a Small Town

Yvonne Teh, Film Editor

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 26 February, 2014, 10:35pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 26 February, 2014, 11:18pm

In 2005, the Hong Kong Film Awards Association celebrated the centenary of Chinese cinema by unveiling a list of the best 100 Chinese films in the eyes of a panel of 101 filmmakers, critics and scholars. Topping that list, which turned out to be 103 films, was Spring in a Small Town, a 1948 drama by Shanghai-born director Fei Mu that was well received upon its release but vilified by the communist authorities for what they saw as its ideological backwardness and bourgeois decadence. Consequently, it was difficult to see the film for decades.

In the 1980s though, Fei's melodramatic masterpiece, which revolves around the love triangle of a couple and the husband's old friend (who also happens to be the wife's first love), began to resurface. Cited as a formative influence by filmmakers such as Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige, Wong Kar-wai and Jia Zhangke, Spring in a Small Town was faithfully remade in 2002 by Tian Zhuangzhuang, another Chinese auteur who earned the ire of the authorities. (Tian was barred from making films for years and his epic family drama, The Blue Kite, was banned on the mainland.)

Long before I saw Fei's film, I was able to check out Tian's Springtime in a Small Town - whose Chinese title is identical to that of the 1948 film - on the big screen in the US. Moved by the personal story of quiet suffering, I was also impressed by the visual sumptuousness of Tian's intimate work.

The 2002 colour film had such an impact that I wondered whether I'd be underwhelmed at a screening of the considerably older black and white source film. I need not have worried - Fei's Spring in a Small Town is one of those great works that was not only ahead of its time, but has also aged well.

Fei's film was among the more than 200 cinematic treasures whose prints the China Film Archive has digitally restored in recent years. On March 2, the Hong Kong Film Archive will host a screening of Spring in a Small Town as part of its Digitally Restored Gems from China programme. Film fans - especially those who have yet to view this masterwork - should make sure they don't miss it.