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Spring in a Small Town (1948)


A surprising amount of images and fan art on the internet for this one!
A surprising amount of images and fan art on the internet for this one!

Genre: Melodrama Romance (China)

Starring: Wei WeiWei Li

Directed By: Mu Fei

Overview: When a doctor visits an old friend, the doctor rekindles an old flame with his friend’s wife.

When you travel along this road we call cinema, when you are an observer and scholar of pretty-much one source as your ‘official guide’ through this crazy world we call film, it is often wondrous, it is often comforting, and it is often predictable. Having only seen the title and that film poster for Spring in a Small Town, I knew – or rather I predicted with 100% accuracy – exactly what this film was about, exactly how it would unfold, and I had a pretty good idea of how this melodrama would end.

Melodramas - by my masculine definition - are:

  • Boring
  • Predictable
  • Always have a:

o    Hollywood: Happy Ending

o    British: ‘Proper’ Ending that fit uptight social mores

o    Communist / Occupied State: ‘Properly Propagandist’ Ending that fit state sanctioned uptight social mores… or else

And although the reason this film drifted into obscurity for so long is because of Communism taking hold after the fact, one can still tell from the very beginning that Spring in a Small Town is not the kind movie that you watch with friends who aren’t into ‘the Study’; it's not a movie that you watch with your mom who finds "black-and-white" movies to be a novelty. It’s not ‘let’s pop this into the DVD player tonight cause it’s super-fun’ cinema. It’s work. It’s not hard work, but it’s solitary study, without a doubt. Let me tell you about it quickly:

He's a cripple, she's a babe.
He's a cripple, she's a babe.

Yuwen Zhou (Wei Wei), our married young woman protagonist and narrator, lives in a small, bombed out, post-war town. Her husband Liyan Dai (Yu Shi) is ill, having long been afflicted with tuberculosis. They live in what once was a wealthy household, but since the war, much of it is destroyed. They live with their aging, pleasant servant and Liyan’s 16 year old sister. One day Zhichen Zhang (Wei Li) drops by for a visit. He is a doctor and Liyan’s old friend. Liyan tells him the good news that after all these years he is now married. When Yuwen and Zhichen set eyes upon each other, is obvious they once mattered to one another. The good doctor stays with them for some time, taking care of his sick friend, and reluctantly rekindling a romance with his old flame. Drama ensues, hearts are worn, psyches are torn, and decisions have to be made. For as predictable as the film is, I won’t spoil the ‘how’ it gets to its not-so-dramatic conclusion.

So this guide I mentioned earlier – sometimes it picks films that deserve its must-see-ness on its own merit, and sometimes, well, it selects films for us 1001 Clubbers to watch simply because it needs to teach us some cinema history – we all know this by now. Recent acclaim for Spring in a Small Town allowed it to resurface and become an important Chinese cinematic milestone, and blablabla, give me a definitive 40s French Noir over this anytime. And no offence, China, I can see your cultural yardstick from over here. You don’t have to show me every nick and scratch on it from up close, I get it.

As a foundation of Chinese cinematic history, I guess I have to believe what the internet says about Spring in a Small Town. But between you and me, when you see a title with no plot synopsis on IMDb, that’s a horrible sign that it probably deserves to remain in obscurity. Spring in a Small Town is nothing more than a university study film to ground us with some context about the time and place it was made in. Perhaps it’s the best film of its era to study said time and place, but there was so much more going on in the world that I gladly would have died having seen a different movie instead.

Spring in a Small Town doesn't feel like any kind of Classic, it doesn't feel important, it doesn’t have revolutionary scenes and the acting is traditional, overzealous melodrama. In short, it’s a twistless love triangle type of tale, and even if you’ve seen none like it, you’re seen this 100 times before. On the upside, this isn’t a chore. Wei Wei is beautiful to watch with her 40s hairstyle that was so iconic back then - though sadly reminiscent of the Film Noir I wish I were watching instead! I found her narration to be poetic, perhaps even profound at times. And, probably most importantly, Spring in a Small Town didn’t actually hurt. It was well paced and although a story told since time immemorial, it told it well enough for me to get through it without tearing out my eyeballs.

Normally he DOESN'T look like he's terrified. She's not baby crazy, don't worry, Zhichen
Normally he DOESN'T look like he's terrified. She's not baby crazy, don't worry, Zhichen

Performance: 7 Cinematography: 6 Script: 6 Plot: 4 Mood: 6

Overall Rating: 58% (More Limp Than Springy)

If one of my friends quickly asked me what I thought about Spring in a Small Town, I wouldn’t gush, I wouldn’t rant; I’d just shrug and say, “I’ve seen it. I don’t think you’d like it.”

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