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... See full summary »
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
The Chinese film Springtime in a Small Town is a stately, unwaveringly discreet movie, but one with more quiet resonance than many of its Western equivalents. It reminds us superficially of the films of Merchant-Ivory - it possesses the sense of tactful distance, the quality of not wanting to deal with any unseemly emotions, that characterizes such staid, painterly efforts as Howards End, A Room With a View and that classic of repressed-librarian-cinema, The Remains of the Day - but director Zhuangzhuang Tian has a greater talent for letting emotion slip in the backdoor than James Ivory, who is often lauded for his subtlety, but is not criticized enough for being a prudish old grandma. Zhuangzhuang's film involves a quartet of characters engaged in a slow, elegant emotional dance. The story takes place in the aftermath of WWII, when China is just starting to pick up the pieces after the devastation wrought on it by the Japanese. Sickly Dai Liyan (Jun Wu) lives with his dutiful-but-frustrated wife Yuwen (Jingfan Hu) and bubbly young sister Xiu (Si Si Lu) in a large, dilapidated house; Liyan's old friend Zhang Zhichen (Bai Qing Xin), a doctor and ex-resistance-fighter from Shanghai, drops in for a visit, much to the delight of everyone in the dreary household. Zhichen, it turns out, was also childhood friends with Yuwen and Xiu; we quickly realize that Zhichen and Yuwen still have feelings for each other, and learn that they had designs on marriage before the war whisked Zhichen away. The personalities of the characters are all carefully delineated, and fit with each other like pieces of a puzzle; Zhuangzhuang puts the picture together slowly, eschewing big dramatic revelations for moments where the relationships take subtle shifts. Such an exercise in formality, peopled by characters who are not exactly big on coming out with anything (except little Xiu, who has still not learned what it means to be a lady), will inevitably wear on the patience at times, but Zhuangzhuang has a way of injecting enough subdued poetry into his images that we don't mind the time it takes for the pieces to snap into place. It's not the kind of movie that reaches for big emotional effects, but neither is it the type that seems to shy away from emotion altogether. Movies like the Merchant-Ivory works are fastidious, grammatically impeccable and fairly heartless, while Springtime in a Small Town, for all its restraint, manages to resonate in the end. The difference between James Ivory and Zhuangzhuang Tian is obvious - Ivory keeps his distance for fear of emotion, while Zhuangzhuang keeps his out of simple politeness.
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