Directed by: Fei Mu
Written by: Li Tianji
Starring: Wei Wei, Shi Yu, Li Wei, Zhang Hongmei, Cui Chaoming
Attempting to distinguish adequacy in marriage can take a physical and psychological toll when communication is absent. When things are left unspoken for some time, then the previous normal dissipates and the new one takes root and expands. Sometimes it takes something or someone to revitalize everything and put things into perspective for everyone.
Living life essentially seeing her husband once a day, Yuwen (Wei Wei) spends her days traveling to the grocery store and walking along the wall of what used to be a strong structure, but now lays decimated. Her family consists of herself, her husband Liyan (Yu Shi), and his sister Xiu (Zhang Hongmei). Seemingly out of nowhere, Zhichen (Li Wei) arrives to visit Liyan as they were former schoolmates. It also sets up a reunion between Zhichen and Yuwen, which surprises everyone.
Love lost and love rekindled follows most of the characters in this film, which opens with the first quarter being narrated by Yuwen. She details all of the minute interactions that take place in her disjointed family. When she married Liyan, he was the new head of a prosperous family, but once war struck in their land, everything around them had been left in shambles. Liyan no longer had the same riches and now he has been stricken to battle with tuberculosis for several years now. Now, the once-proud man spends his days in isolation in his garden. It’s a life that Yuwen certainly does not enjoy but must endure until the arrival of Zhichen.
The arrival of this character changes the entire story because it pumps energy into the demeanor of everyone else. Zhichen was classmates with Liyan, but even farther back he lived next door to Yuwen growing up. The film then insinuates that there may have been some romantic feelings between them before they went their separate ways. Liyan has found a friend, Yuwen, a potential lover, and a possible good match for Xiu. The narrative then shifts to those three different potential landing spots for Zhichen in relation to the family.
Spring in a Small Town effectively navigates these relationships and builds up such a strong romantic tension between Zhichen and Yuwen. It surprised me because it focused so much on Yuwen and her actual feelings with everything occurring. Having been filmed in 1940s China, director Fei Mu knew how to let the female experience take center stage. This story could have easily been fixated on Zhichen as he walks into a house to visit his former schoolmate and finds out Liyan married his biggest childhood crush. You can see that movie now, right? Fei Mu instead allowed Yuwen to tell the story and display how she fights off the desires to leave with Zhichen even if it would be justifiable.
Yuwen does everything correctly as a wife, as noted by Liyan himself. She completes all of her wifely duties perfectly, but yet Liyan cannot be there for her because he’s still broken up about not being the man that married her. He lost everything during the war, which hurt him physically and psychologically as well. They rarely communicate until Zhichen’s appearance, which brings the entire family together as they play games and have actual discussions. There were several instances where Yuwen would visit Zhichen in his room that teased that at any moment their formalities would break and they would grab onto each other. It follows this desire Yuwen wants to act upon, but something holds her back. It may be her duty to her husband or something else. That burning and aching desire reminds of In the Mood For Love and how without even touching, that connection feels palpable. I can see why it’s considered to be the greatest Chinese film ever made.
Simply shot and on a very low budget, Spring in a Small Town tells a wonderful story about how friendships and love can be rekindled when communication lines open up. The female-focused story adds to the freshness of it, as we walk along the dangerous line with Yuwen as she tries to decide what the next step in her life should be. The narrative has plenty of drama and concludes in a very satisfying way in a story led by a great lead actor and a director that really worked beyond his time.