Saturday, November 12, 2011

Fortissimo Films at MoMA: Springtime in a Small Town (2002)

For years, filmmaker Fei Mu was considered politically incorrect in China, by virtue of being insufficiently political. Yet, due to the apolitical nature of his masterpiece Spring in a Small Town, a remake would ironically become a viable comeback vehicle for Tian Zhuangzhuang. Often at odds with censors, Tian was officially blacklisted by Chinese authorities after his prohibited 1993 Cultural Revolution drama The Blue Kite leaked out to the West. It was Fortissimo Films who shepherded his long awaited return to filmmaking across the festival circuit and global film market. Appropriately, Tian’s Springtime in a Small Town (trailer here) screens this Sunday as part of In Focus: Fortissimo Films, MoMA’s tribute to the unerringly tasteful film company.

Once glorious but now crumbling, Dai Liyan’s family house serves as a metaphor for his family. The defeated Japanese occupiers have retreated and spring is in the air. Yet, Dai is sick in body and spirit. He lives quietly with his spirited younger sister Dai Xiu, the loyal family retainer Old Huang, and his increasingly unhappy wife Yuwen. She dutifully tends to him, but her passive aggression is unmistakable. Things appear to have reached an uneasy equilibrium, until his childhood friend Zhang Zhichen pays a fateful visit.

It turns out Zhang also has quite a bit of history with Yuwen 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 drama, featuring characters too tired for melodrama.

Clearly, Tian understood what made Fei’s film so exquisitely beautiful, recreating the original step by step, if not shot for shot. Like the source film, Tian’s Springtime is about regret and longing, not anger or lust. Indeed, the palpable sense of restraint is what makes both films so powerful.

In a remarkably delicate performance, Hu Jingfan is devastatingly brittle and conflicted as Yuwen. Arguably, she is the one member of Tian’s ensemble who eclipses the work of their great predecessors. Still, as the sickly Dai Liyan, Jun Wu notably conveys a depth of pathos that is quite compelling and acutely human. Si Si Lu is also a genuinely luminous presence and surprisingly moving as Dai Xiu. Only Bai Qing Xin risks disappointing those familiar with his forebear, never quite achieving the tragic nobility Li Wei brought to Zhang. (Perhaps one could also argue Tian lets his pivotal scene of drunkenness go on a tad too long.)

There is something wonderfully sad and lovely about this story that holds up perfectly a second time around. Largely set in the decrepit family home, Springtime could easily be adapted for the stage (though Tian and cinematographer Mark Li Ping-bing strikingly capture the crumbling grandeur of the city wall, which becomes a key meeting place for Zhang and Yuwen). It is all the more poignant when we speculate what lies ahead for these characters of faded “bourgeoisie” lineage in the chaos following 1949. Artful and profoundly humane, Tian’s Springtime is highly recommended during MoMA’s tribute to Fortissimo and Fei Mu’s original is even more highly recommended, under any circumstances. The former screens this Sunday (11/13) and Monday (11/21) as part of a first class showcase of some of the finest Asian film of the past two decades.