How China’s Greatest Ever Film Was Rescued From Oblivion
It’s now been 75 years since “Spring in a Small Town” was released, but there is still a mystique surrounding the drama that in 2005 was voted the best Chinese film ever made.
For decades, the film was effectively buried under the weight of history. Released in 1948, while the Chinese Civil War was still raging, it quickly disappeared from screens under the shadow of the swirling politics of that era.
During the Maoist period that followed, productions with patriotic themes were totally dominant. “Spring in a Small Town” — an achingly romantic study of a complex love triangle — remained out of favor and shunted to the background.
Yet the film’s legend endured, and in later years it has finally received recognition as an all-time classic. Critics credit it with inventing a totally new — and uniquely Chinese — cinematic style. Many of China’s greatest filmmakers have cited it as an influence.
One of the film’s long-term champions is Marco Mueller, a Shanghai-based Italian who has been heavily involved in Chinese film for decades. These days, he works as a producer and festival director and programmer, while also teaching at the Shanghai Film Academy.
Mueller arrived in China as a student in 1975, and was quickly drawn to Chinese cinema. In those days, “Spring in a Small Town” was never really screened, but was often mentioned in conversation by film students and professors, he recalls.
Eventually, Mueller managed to find a rough video tape version of the movie, and finally watched it for himself. He quickly realized he was watching the work of “a giant” of cinema.
“That was immediately obvious,” Mueller tells Sixth Tone over the phone. “People at that time knew about Japanese cinema, of filmmakers like (Akira) Kurosawa, but this was China and no one had seen this before.”
Mueller himself would go on to play a key role in introducing the film to the world over the following years. In the 1980s, he organized a series of groundbreaking retrospectives on Chinese cinema in cities across Europe, with the “Electric Shadows” show in his native Italy receiving particular attention.
“Spring in a Small Town” stood out even at the time it was released. Director Fei came to the movie as a well-known filmmaker who had achieved acclaim and success in the early days of Chinese cinema with 1935’s “Song of China” — a pre-war movie that became one of the first Chinese films to screen overseas. He had also just made China’s first color film — the operatic “A Wedding in the Dream” — earlier in 1948.
But for “Spring in a Small Town,” Fei decided to do something different. He took three emerging stars in Wei Wei, Shi Yu, and Li Wei, and he specifically told them to play down their emotions. The goal was to unfold the story of a love triangle at a languid, almost dreamlike pace — a departure from the more dramatic style that had previously dominated in Shanghai’s film industry.
Set in a fictional town in eastern China just after the Second World War — a town that has fallen on hard times — the film centers on a husband (Shi) and wife (Wei). The pair are trapped in a passionless marriage, but one they cling to through notions of fidelity and tradition. Their established routines — and their loyalties — are then tested after the surprise arrival of the wife’s childhood lover and friend (Li), and the emotions he ignites.
Watching the film is a slow experience, with the dialog and sets deliberately sparse and the drama building from a slow burn. Fei was trying to achieve a new style of cinema, Mueller believes, and there are threads of influence throughout the film from Austrian filmmakers Jacob and Luise Fleck.
The couple had emigrated to Shanghai to escape the Nazis’ concentration camps in 1939, and later worked with Fei on 1941’s “Children of the World.” During that period, they also introduced Fei to trends in European cinema of the time, including the early modernist movement of the late 1920s to early 1930s.
But in “Spring in a Small Town,” Fei isn’t being led by those influences; he is assimilating them while producing something entirely original, Mueller says.
“It was quite obvious, in terms of film language — the grammar, the syntax — it’s so different from the Western syntax,” says Mueller. “And the style of acting was very different from what had been seen in Shanghai cinema. It was really like cinema being reborn in a completely new way, because the film had no direct stylistic connection to the golden years of Shanghai cinema (of the 1930s).”
It all feels very, very real — and many believe that may have led to the film’s undoing. With its sharp focus on human relationships, the movie went against the leftist, politically-oriented approach to filmmaking that dominated Chinese cinema for much of the 1930s and ’40s.
“Spring in a Small Town” was the last film Fei ever made. In 1949, as the People’s Republic of China was founded, he moved from Shanghai to Hong Kong. But he was taken by a heart attack while sitting at his work desk in 1951, aged just 44.
It took until the early 1980s for the China Film Archive to embrace the film and make a screenable copy available. During that long intervening period, the film’s reputation was kept alive by a number of film critics and academics, most notably the Hong Kong-based critic, programmer, and author Wong Ain-ling. General audiences, however, could only really see the film via pirated VCR and later video copies.
But when the film was finally screened overseas, it caused a sensation.
“In 1984 (at the Pesaro festival), we did a small panel about Fei Mu and the impact of that screening was huge, it was immense. Everybody kept talking about the show,” recalls Mueller. “We had 1,200 media from all over the world. It was a huge, historical event.”
Veteran film curator, writer, and teacher Sam Ho first heard about “Spring in a Small Town” after befriending and working alongside Wong. He recalls hearing her tales of early screenings of the film in Europe and how she had become obsessed with it.
“When I first saw it, I was blown away,” says Ho, sitting down to chat over coffee and cake. “Needless to say, coming out of the 1970s, no one had a clue that China even had a cinematic legacy.”
As time went on, the film’s star continued to rise. Ho was among those who voted “Spring in a Small Town” as the best Chinese film ever made in a poll done by the 2005 Hong Kong Film Awards to mark 100 years of Chinese cinema.
There was also a faithful remake produced in 2002 by the acclaimed director Tian Zhuangzhuang (titled “Springtime in a Small Town”). Many other noted Chinese-language filmmakers, including Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige, Jia Zhangke, and Wong Kar-wai, have heralded Fei’s work as an inspiration.
Ho, like Mueller, believes part of the film’s strength lies in the fact that Fei was searching for a new and distinctly Chinese “film language.” He likens it to the emergence of the famed French New Wave of cinema in the 1950s, which saw the likes of François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard thread existential themes into their films and make use of techniques such as long tracking shots that follow the actors and create a sense of intimacy with the audience.
The difference is that Fei was not part of any specific movement or group of filmmakers: The path he was forging was completely of his own making.
“He captured a kind of poetic modernism, and what’s amazing is that he reached that state by himself,” says Ho. “He was so ahead of his time. The film critics of the time were left-leaning, and looking at history you can understand why he was often dismissed as bourgeois. He’d been to an exclusive private school and traveled extensively in Europe. But these days, we can see clearly just how good the film is and how important it is in terms of Chinese cinema history.”
Today, however, “Spring in a Small Town” is one of those movies that is often discussed, but few have actually seen. Though versions of the film are freely available online, its main audience remains a select group of academics and diehard cineastes.
When asked whether his students in Shanghai know much about the film and its history, Mueller lets out an audible sigh.
“When I talk to my students, they haven’t seen the film,” he says. “They have heard about the film but it’s a very general thing today. People — including students — would just not necessarily watch those films.”
The film still appears in retrospectives, and national broadcaster CCTV is reportedly working on a documentary to mark the 75th anniversary of its release. But Ho urges viewers to just seek it out — now.
“It’s not about social inequality but human drama, which was so rare at that time in history,” says Ho. “Fei Mu was raised with traditional Chinese culture, and throughout his career he was trying to integrate that tradition with experiments on film language. It’s still such a universal film. It’s just outstanding.”
Editor: Dominic Morgan.
(Header image: A still from the film “Spring in a Small Town.” From Mulan International Film Festival)