Mesmerizing human drama
Roland E. Zwick | Valencia, Ca USA | 07/18/2005
(4 out of 5 stars)
Set in the days immediately following World War II, the Chinese film "Springtime in a Small Town" is a poetic, slow-moving meditation on the part that love, passion, compromise, self-sacrifice and renewal play in our lives and our relationships.
Liyan and Yuwen are a young married couple living in the crumbling ancestral home of the man's deceased parents. Struggling under the burden of an arranged marriage, Liyan and Yuwen have been drifting farther and farther apart over time - he obsessing over his chronic health problems (possibly psychosomatic in nature) and she secretly yearning for a more fulfilling life away from this man who seems not to care for her. Then one day, Zhang, an old boyhood pal of Liyan's, comes to pay a visit. Now a doctor, Zhang is shocked to discover that Liyan's wife is Yuwen, the very woman whom he loved but left ten years earlier. Tensions very quickly develop in the household as Zhang and Yuwen begin to take steps towards rekindling their romance - forcing each of the three individuals to come to terms with long unresolved desires and emotions.
In its quiet, subtle way, "Springtime in a Small Town" explores what happens when human emotions and passions are repressed under the weight of societal restrictions and cultural traditions. Writer Cheng Ah and director Zhuangzhuang Tian unfold their story slowly, never feeling the need to rev up the action or overemphasize a detail to make a point. The film establishes a hypnotic rhythm and a tone of quiet contemplation from the outset, allowing us to soak in all that is happening on the screen at our own leisure. For despite the fact that there may not SEEM to be a lot happening in the film, there is actually a wealth of human drama taking place right beneath the placid surface of the tale. These are characters whose every word, every gesture reveals some aspect of the universal human condition. To heighten the intimacy of the piece, Ah and Tian have circumscribed their canvas so that only five people even make an appearance in the film (Liyan's teenaged sister and an aged family servant are the movie's other two characters). "Canvas" is indeed the operative word here, for Tian has treated this film much like he would a painting, capturing his characters in stark tableau often set against strikingly beautiful natural landscapes. The camera glides along at an unhurried pace, helping to draw us into this strangely beautiful world where seething human passions play themselves out in settings. The filmmakers also deserve credit for providing a remarkably ambiguous ending. We really aren't quite sure how we are supposed to react at the end of the movie and that is as it should be when it comes to art.
The lovely Jingfan Hu is both heartbreaking and not a little frightening as the normally composed young woman who may not be quite as sweet and submissive as she appears to be on the surface. The shots of her strolling through the countryside in all her placid, regal beauty are haunting and memorable in their exquisiteness. Jun Wu as Liyan and Bai Qing Xin as Zhang also give excellent performances, never allowing their strong feelings to rise much above the level of a whisper. Liyan is a particularly fascinating character in that we get the sense that he may be using his "illness" as a means of avoiding the responsibilities and pressures of being a true husband to his wife. The power struggle that develops among the three of them is devastating in its understatement and subtlety.
There`s no denying that "Springtime in a Small Town" demands a certain amount of patience from the viewer. But anyone who opens himself up to the beauty of its images and the truth of its observations will find it to be a profoundly rewarding experience well worth the time and patience."
Beauty and Meaning in Simplicity
Steve Koss | New York, NY United States | 02/15/2005
(5 out of 5 stars)
"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
You Must Believe In "Spring"
Alex Udvary | chicago, il United States | 02/08/2005
(4 out of 5 stars)
""Springtime in a Small Town" is director Tian Zhuangzhuang's first film in 10 years after being banned when his film "The Blue Kite" was released. "Kite" told a political story, here with "Springtime" Zhuangzhuang plays it safe by remaking the 1948 film "Spring in a Small Town". A post WW2 love story.
But, don't think the film is really all that simple. Lurking behind the scenes is a story that, in a subtle way, challenges in social customs of the times.
Zhang Zhichen (Bai Qing) and Yuwen (Hu Jing Fan) were childhood sweathearts, but, there was no matchmaker involved so the two could never get married. Then war broke out.
10 years have passed and now Yuwen is married to Dai Liyan (Wu Jun). Though things are not going well. Liyan is sick and the marriage is now a loveless one. That is to say if these two were ever in love to begin with.
Zhichen enters both of their lives again as he knows Liyan. Both Liyan doesn't know the past wife and Zhichen share.
The movie is beautifully told. The cinematography captures a tenderness to the story. And Zhuangzhuang displays his terrific eye as a director. The script manages to avoid several cliches that would have appeared if this were an American film. In which case it would have been a overly sentimental WW2 story. Think "Waterloo Bridge".
"Springtime in a Small Town" is really more than just a love story, although if as you watch it you see nothing more, that's fine, the story still works as an old-fashion love triangle.
Bottom-line: Not as emotionally involving as Zhuangzhuang's last film, it is still a lovely told story dealing with social customs and regrets of the past and regrets that are still to come."