They live in a once grand home half demolished by bombs in a town that cuts off all electricity at midnight. Yet, knowing what institutional madness lies ahead, these were actually days of relative peace and sanity for one family in 1948 China. Banned after the Communist takeover in 1949 for being insufficiently political, Fei Mu’s Spring in a Small Town, has since been rehabilitated, hailed by many as a true masterpiece of Chinese cinema. Having influenced Jia Zhangke, particularly his short Cry Me A River, it screens tomorrow as the conclusion of the MoMA’s Jia retrospective.
At one point, Dai Liyan would have been a good catch. Now sick in spirit as much as in body, he is tended to by his cold but dutiful wife Zhou Yuwen and Old Huang, the still loyal family retainer. The only spark of life in the house is provided by his vivacious younger sister Dai Xiu, until the fateful day Dai’s old friend Zhang Zhichen pays a visit.
It turns out Zhang also has quite a bit of history with Zhou as well, having nearly been engaged years ago. Inevitably, sparks flare up again between the two frustrated lovers, despite their efforts not to hurt Dai. Further complicating matters, Dai Xiu also seems to have eyes for Zhang, which would be a match her brother would like to make. It all eventually unravels in a Chekhovian melodrama, featuring characters too tired for melodrama.
Helmed with a delicate touch by Fei, Spring is all about regret, but never about anger. These characters have made their choices and are prepared to deal with them. As Zhang, Li Wei is decency incarnate, while Wei Wei exudes quiet fortitude as Zhou. Fei also brilliantly incorporates his two main sets, the decrepit family house and the equally dilapidated city wall (a frequent rendezvous destination), creating a vivid sense of time and place. While it is a bit intrusive at first, Zhou’s frequent narration also heightens the sense of a time gone by.
Old-fashioned in the best sense, Spring is lovely film about the flawed individuals that make up the extended Dai family. It is all the more poignant when one speculates what would happen to them, given their “bourgeoisie” lineage, post-1949. It is a heartbreaking thought. Screening with Jia’s Cry, which also addresses the pain of love denied, Spring wraps up the Jia retrospective at MoMA this Saturday (3/20).