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Following WWII and with China brought to it's knees by the actions of the Japanese, prior to the rise of the Communists, led by Chairman Mao. This is the time during which Fei Mu's film takes place. Wei Wei plays a woman who lives a lonely life, shackled by her care for her gentle, but ill husband (Shi Yu)- that is until her first love reappears into her life. This is Fei's penultimate film as director, but is still enjoyed by many today as one of his best works. It has now been a firm favorite of many since it was restored in the 80's by the China Film Archive and some rate it as one of the greatest Chinese movies in history.Written by
"Spring in a Small Town" is a remarkable fusion of classic form and the convincingly real. It moves from its central character, Yuwen, who is isolated in a small town, and in an arranged marriage with an ill neurasthenic husband, Lyan; and moves too from a truly enduring acting job by Wei Wei as Yuwen.
The story revolves around memory: memory of love, and memory of a pre-war period of youthful promise. These moments of being are stirred to life by the visit of the husband's long estranged friend Zhang, who is now a city doctor. Zhang means renewed life and vigor at the desolate, war ruined estate of the noble Lyan, and love and passion to Yuwen, who happens to have been someone she once loved as a teen.
But Zhang's surprising appearance is more widening of vision than epiphanal. It's complicated by Yuwen's passionate desires and longings concentrated under the guise of romance, the doctor's scruples and detachment, her husband's illness, depression, and stoic passivity, and her sister-in-law's budding mutual relationship with Zhang. But there is no love triangle here, nor double love-triangle--something far more subtle is happening and it's happening in that whole arena suggestive of love and affection--one that extends into a range of human emotions, but is not romantic love itself.
Although there is clearly a patriarchal social world at work here, its oppressions are not exactly active in or bearing down on the two male and two female characters of this intimate drama. Each character has a kind of self-direction which comes from some inner sense of integrity, and acceptance of the life dealt them. They have deep emotions, but these are more felt than viewed. In other words, no one character dominates any other, so that each is free to call upon aspects of themselves which can result in self-determined responses and/or personal changes that are small but lasting adjustments.
The result is a world of stasis and intimacy which bears the physical-ness of the natural world. The characters seem to be as embodied as the stones of the ancient walls of the estate. They exist and move in a kind of equal world in which each senses the most minute emotion, movement, or thought in another--sometimes in soundless scenes. Honesty and simplicity arising from honoring the complexity of human-ness are what sets Fei Mu's film apart.
"Spring" is one of the most beautiful of all films because the things of beauty, sensuality, love, the natural world are more akin to hints than expressions. A breeze, spring sunshine, plants, the moon, water, fire are almost unnoticeably present, as are glimmering lights in an interior stillness. And all this bears more weight because of the period between war and change which seems to create a profounder environment. One in which the destruction of towns and persons is experienced in say the town's depopulation or the mild husband's bitterness and self-defeat. Yes, buildings and lives are equally vulnerable in Fei Mu's somewhat inconsolable world.
But "Spring" is as much about spring, as it is about the gravitas of war. Lyan's young sister Xiu has a youthful spontaneous presence which with all its trust, directness, driving sympathy pushes both her brother into re-connecting to memory, and her sister-in-law into and through the painful memory of Zhang's failure to be in love with her back then.
In the end, Yuwen may not be less alone, but she is more in sync with her husband's now awakened life and affection and more in touch with her own emotional life which was deeper than what she understood it to be. Dr. Zhang and Liyan do not answer her passions, but they have both contributed to her more certain grasp of them. There is a touch of sadness at end though, because the male social structures are still in place and Yuwen needs a fuller life--it's perhaps promised in her sister-in-laws embrace of all that must await both women.
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