Monday, January 14, 2008

Desperate Housewife

It's taken so damn long for Fei Mu's classic, masterpiece chamber drama, Spring In A Small Town (Xiao Cheng Zhi Chun), to finally have an English-subtitled version and on DVD. Like many others, I was taken by Tian Zhuangzhuang's gorgeous 2002 remake of the 1948 film (with the same Chinese title, but known as Springtime In A Small Town in English), and had been looking for the original since. Sadly, for a long time, there was only a China import copy without subtitles. Until now.

Now we can finally see the source material and understand the brilliance of Fei Mu, whose career was in a way ruined by this film, the director moving to Hong Kong after facing harsh criticism for being "insular."

Delicately told, with painstakingly thought-out shots and mise-en-scene, Spring In A Small Town is already a tension-filled drama even without drawing upon its many perceived political allegories and parallels with the period during which the film was made.

Set in a "small town" (in some translations, the title is Spring In A Small City) that is never seen on screen, the story is centred upon Yuwen, the lonely and conflicted wife whose voice-over narrates the film, sometimes bogglingly narrating moments that had taken place in her absence. This inner voice is made the more internal by sometimes lowering close to a whisper. (There are few voice-overs that I find actually works, and apart from this film's, the other effective voice-over is that of Terrence Malick's Days Of Heaven.)

Yuwen's husband, Liyan, is a sickly land-owner who believes he suffers from tuberculosis but others seem to think his ailment is only psychological. Yuwen, whose marriage is now only an obligation, spends her days robotically performing her daily routines, and the only moment in her life that she actually enjoys is when she walks along the ruined city wall on her way to, and back from, grocery-shopping.

One day, an old friend of Liyan's, a doctor named Zhichen, comes to stay a few days. As it turns out, Yuwen and Zhichen were childhood friends and their chance meeting now rekindles some old passions.

Here's where things get interesting. Yuwen desires a getaway from her seemingly pointless and confined life, but she's too tied to current obligations and the old ways to be truly able to run away with Zhichen and head for possibly better horizons. Zhichen, an outside force of modernity, unsettles the balance of things in this feudal home. Liyan wants to marry off his young sister, Meimei, to Zhichen but he's not interested. The microcosm may reflect the macrocosm of the times, but the story of lost opportunities, second chances, loyalty, and the nature of love, is timeless.

There are only five characters in the entire film (the other is the housekeeper Old Huang), but the dynamics are well established and the isolation is strongly felt when no other signs of life are evident in the "small town," bombed out during the preceding war years.

Fei Mu sculpts with time, using dissolves to create multiple scenes of the same conversation, and this was long before Godard came along with his jump-cuts in Breathless. Fei Mu also uses silence and facial expressions to great effect, with the actors often performing with just their eyes. There are lots of other things to savour in this film, often acknowledged as the greatest Chinese film ever made.

The print used for the DVD is unrepaired, with visuals not cleaned up, and some missing frames. So you get a picture that sometimes jiggles, with moments of sudden blackness (but only a half-second each time at most), and questionable contrast. But fortunately the night scenes are watchable. But leaving the film unfixed does lend it a certain charm, as it forces us to acknowledge the passing of time and the timelessness of Fei Mu's methods.

This Region 1 release is part of Cinema Epoch's Chinese Film Classics Collection, and the other titles include Princess Iron Fan, Romance Of The Western Chamber, Song At Midnight, and the two-part epic, The Spring River Flows East.

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