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SPRINGTIME IN A SMALL TOWN (Xiao Cheng Zhi Chun) (director: Tian Zhuangzhuang; screenwriters: Ah Cheng/Mu Fei; cinematographer: Mark Lee; editor: Xu Jiangping; music: Zhao Lin; cast: Jingfan Hu (Yuwen), Jun Wu (Liyan Dai), Xin Baiqing (Zhang Zhichen), Xiaokeng Ye (Huang), Si Si Lu (Dai Xiu); Runtime: 118; MPAA Rating: PG; producer: Bill Kong; Palm Pictures; 2002-China-Hong Kong-France-in Mandarin with English subtitles)
“If you can go with the film’s leisurely flow and accept the restraints it holds its lovers in check with, it can be a spellbinding film experience.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A carefully crafted highly stylized reworking of Fei Mu’s 1948 Spring in a Small City, a film many consider the best ever made in China (the Communists trashed it as counter-revolutionary). It has the same theme of unrequited love that Wong Kar-wai used for his acclaimed In the Mood for Love. The great Chinese director Tian Zhuangzhuang (“Horse Thief”), a member of the “Fifth Generation” Beijing film movement, returns to making films after a decade’s absence since his political family drama The Blue Kite (1993) rubbed the Chinese authorities the wrong way and he was banned.

The film is set in rural South China in a provincial town (never shown), on a decaying war-damaged estate of ailing landowner Liyan Dai (Wu Jun), just after the Japanese occupation and the triumph of the Communist revolution in postwar China (some time around 1946). The cranky, petulant thirty year old landowner, Liyan Dai (Jun Wu), whose parents are deceased and he’s the only surviving male member left, lives with his loyal elderly family servant Huang (Xiaokeng Ye), his ebullient 16-year-old sister Xiu (Si Si Lu), and his demure and emotionally estranged wife of eight years, from an arranged marriage, Yuwen (Jingfan Hu). On a sunny spring day he receives a surprise visit from his childhood friend Zhichen Zhang (Xin Bajqing) whom he hasn’t seen for a decade and learns that he’s now a Shanghai doctor and that Zhichen knows his wife; but Liyan doesn’t know that they were in love ten years ago and that the 16-year-old girl didn’t marry him because he wasn’t persuasive enough. Evidently Yuwen still loves Zhichen, but has repressed that love and now has to deal with his live presence.

A hopeless love triangle gets played out with the childless marriage exposed as a sham, but that there are no villains. Liyan’s frailty is less medical than psychological; his attractive slender wife is dutiful but cold–sleeping in a separate bedroom and suppressing her feelings by doing embroidery, raising flowers and always keeping busy around the house.

It’s a visually stunning film, as photographer Mark Lee makes good use of tracking shots to convey the changing moods of the players as each shot evocatively catches their expressions or the lush surrounding landscape. It’s a subtle, low-key old-fashioned romancer that has an overwhelming purely cinematic beauty and uses the family drama to hint at political, social and class allegories while presenting a nostalgia for what has been lost and will probably be lost forever in a radically different China from their youth. The overwhelming mood is doom and gloom, until their urban guest brings life and games back into the darkly-lit household. Everyone seems to be fighting against a tide of melancholy and an historical pathos that is out of their hands. Though first-class in its storytelling it was, nevertheless, far too theatrical. But I can appreciate the fine nuanced performances by the relatively unknown cast and the exquisite attention played to period details. If you can go with the film’s leisurely flow and accept the restraints it holds its lovers in check with, it can be a spellbinding film experience.

REVIEWED ON 6/23/2005 GRADE: B +

Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”