Thursday, February 20, 2014

Xiao cheng zhi chun / Spring in a Small Town

小城之春 / Kevät pienessä kaupungissa (our title) / The Spring Torrent (the title on the print). CN 1948. PC: Wenhua Film Company. D: Mu Fei. Based on a short story by Tianji Li. DP: Shengwei Li. AD: Ning Che, Dexiong Zhu. M: Yijun Huang. ED: Xu Ming, Wei Yibao. C: Wei Wei (Zhou Yuwen / Yu Wen, the wife), Yu Shi (Dai Liyan, the husband), Hongmei Zhang (Dai Xiu, little sister), Wei Li (Zhang Zhichen, the guest), Chaoming Cui (Lao Huang, the loyal servant). Some sources say 85 min. This print ran 97 min. A China Film Archive print with English subtitles, Cinema Orion, Helsinki (History of the Cinema), 20 Feb 2014

I saw this masterpiece for the first time. It is refined and deeply felt, with a sense of an organic whole, and with a rich visual texture. The narrative is engaging but not slick and polished. The mise-en-scène is beautiful, and there is a sense of conviction in the way the story is told visually.

It is a first person narrative told by a young, melancholy wife. After eight years of the war with Japan the little Chinese town is in ruins, and the Dai family home, too, is ruined. The husband has caught TB, but what is worse, there is a general sense of fatigue and lethargy, a lack of a fighting spirit. The wife has become a nurse to her husband who is no longer a man to his woman.

Comes a visitor: a doctor, her first lover, revisiting after ten years away. The doctor's diagnosis is that the husband's TB can be cured but there is a problem with his heart.

The doctor's visit is a happy and revitalizing event for all, including the little sister. They go to Sunday walks and boating, and they play finger games.

At night the moon is lurking behind the clouds, and the wife comes to see the doctor alone. They embrace, and the attraction still seems irresistible, but the doctor struggles against it, and instead gives the wife an injection. She was 16 then, now 24. Her mother had objected, and now that the doctor has returned, things are different.

The husband's heart fails, but he is successfully resurrected by his loved ones surrounding him. They all escort the doctor to the railway station, and he goes away alone.

The ruin is a central visual motif and symbol. Key scenes are shot as silhouettes: in the beginning, the woman alone walking on the ruined city walls, in the end, they all joined together. The composition is beautiful. The use of the moving camera is engaging.

The songs are beautiful and essential in conveying a feeling of community, in English translation "What A Lovely Rose", and "Far, Far Away There's A Pretty Woman".

A study in female subjectivity, in female melancholia. There is a Lady Chatterley quality in the woman's distress, but the solution is different, and the husband's illness is curable. The husband actually asks the doctor to stay ("your presence makes her happy"), but the doctor wants to leave.

The photochemical quality of the print is not perfect, yet it conveys a beautiful sense of the rich balance, the black levels, and the refinement of the cinematography. Unforgettable. I hope to revisit this film, and if they digitize this, I hope they do it with tender loving care, capturing the magic of the refined detail and the sense of light and darkness.

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