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Liyan and Yuwen live in post-war torpor, childless but with Liyan's school-aged sister. He coughs, imagining he has TB; Yuwan embroiders; they sleep in separate rooms. A surprise visit from Liyan's boyhood friend Zhang, a big city physician, wakes up the household. To Zhang's amazement, he discovers his friend's wife is his own youthful sweetheart. Possibilities abound: an affair, an arranged marriage of Zhang and Little Sister, now 16, or simply ending ennui and embracing vitality. Can a stifling atmosphere of Chinese Chekhov give way to spring? Alcohol at a birthday party speeds resolution. Written by
May be if all films were like Springtime in a Small Town, life would be a tad boring. As it is, the film is a fresh breeze in a stale room, which is also an apt metaphor for the story of a childhood friend and old flame reappearing in a small town, disrupting a dull, lifeless marriage.
This film is understated to the point of being minimalist. It is set in the aftermath of the Second World War, in a small town that has been systematically bombed and now mostly in ruins. In a run down old house lives a husband with a mysterious ailment; his young sister; a wife unsure of what she is looking for in life, certain only that she hasn't found it yet, and an old manservant. Into this mix comes a doctor from the big city, visiting his old friend. Upon arriving he is surprised to discover him married to his childhood sweetheart, the luminescent Yewen (Jing Fan Hu).
So, we have the classic love triangle: except may be not. The tensions which develop between the three main leads are delightfully understated, but culminate in several set pieces of pure drama. Best of all, plot resolution is achieved without the director/scriptwriter feeling the need to tie up all of the emotional loose ends as well. Some may find this leaves an empty feeling. Me, I thought that's life.
If you need another reason to watch this film (apart from the gentle, delicate story and the lovely acting) there is also the gorgeous cinematography of Ping-Bin Lee. This is not of the I-suspect-soon-to-be-ubiquitous overripe Christopher Doyle school, but an altogether more subtle and engaging beauty (though, interestingly, they worked together to create the Hong Kong classic, In the Mood for Love). Lee seems to be able to find beauty and mood in broken buildings, barren spaces and muted colours. It is a tragedy that the MTV generation pushed this film into the repertory theatres, as I would have loved to have seen it on a really big screen.
I suppose people fed and watered on I Robot and Saving Private Ryan might well yawn all the way through Springtime in a Small Town, but I think it was easily the best film (that I saw) in 2002. Well worth its 9/10 rating.
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