Tian Zhuangzhuang, director of THE BLUE KITE, pays homage to the founders of Chinese cinema in this marvelous remake of a 1940's classic. SPRINGTIME IN A SMALL TOWN is an intensely personal tale of loss and ruin, alienation and suppressed desire in the period shortly after the Japanese invasion has been repelled.
The story line is starkly simple. Zhang Zhichen, a young doctor, arrives to visit his former classmate Dai Liyan whom he hasn't seen for ten years. Zhang discovers that he was formerly neighbors with Dai's wife, Yu Wen. Yu Wen is completely estranged from her husband - they can barely look at one another, let alone make physical contact or show affection. Zhang's appearance in her home causes Yu Wen's to realize what she has lost in her life and sparks her desire for almost any expression of warmth and human emotion. She attempts to seduce Zhang, but he rejects her advances. Meanwhile, Dai recognizes the suffering he has caused his wife and takes an overdose of sleeping pills in order to free her.
Tian paints a minimalist portrait of here, so slight it could as easily be a theatrical performance as cinema. The entire cast consists of just five characters - Dai, Yu, Zhang, Dai's 16-year-old sister, and the family's elderly servant, Huang. Outside the house on the streets, along the country paths, and on the nearby canals, not a soul is seen for the entire movie, as if the entire world had died except these five people. Although the Dai family home survived the Japanese bombardment (through a fortuitous rainfall), the aging house lays in partial ruin, and the surrounding neighborhood is filled with crumbling walls and demolished homes. The scene is nothing if not post-apocalyptic. Yet in the nearby countryside, we see gauzy and sensuous vistas of natural beauty. Life lies beyond these ruins.
Like spring, however, hope rises even from amidst the ruins. In this case, hope comes from the positive and progressive spirit of Zhang and the childlike enthusiasm and vitality of Dai Liyan's little sister, Dai Xiu. The arrival of Dai Xiu's 16th birthday, her uninhibited singing during a canal boat outing, and the prospect of her departure for further schooling in Shanghai signal a brighter future. By movie's end, signs of life are everywhere, from budding trees to bright canal waters to the return of Yu to her pastime of embroidering by the window, in the fresh sunlight. At the same time, we sense that husband and wife will forever be captives in their ancient home, resigned to life together yet tragically apart, a life without love or children. They will live out the dead past, while the future moves on from these ruins to Shanghai and beyond.
For those who relish a mature and thoughtful treatment of human relationships and the meaning of ill-fated loss, SPRINGTIME IN A SMALL TOWN is stunningly beautiful in its simplicity. It is a movie that plumbs great depths of human emotion as it examines the desiccated remnants of a ruined life in a ruined world, even as it offers the prospect of a better tomorrow