Spring in a Small Town

dir. Fei Mu

TIFF Cinematheque - Retrospective

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Fei Mu's beloved 1948 masterpiece, about an unhappy wife who finds one last chance for happiness, is the crowning achievement of Golden Age Shanghai cinema and often named as the greatest Chinese film of all time.

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Spring in a Small Town is the apotheosis of Golden Age Shanghai cinema, at once a deeply literary work that forges unexpected connections between pre- and post-Republican prose forms, and a breathtaking visual masterpiece that marries symbolism derived from ancient landscape painting with innovative camera and editing ideas. His once great wealth lost in the aftermath of the Second World War, the sickly, middle-aged Dai Liyan (Shi Yu) now pines for the past in his ruined estate with his alienated wife Zhou Yuwen (Wei Wei), his young sister, and an old servant. The couple's mutual ennui is temporarily lifted when an old friend — and Yuwen's former lover — arrives for a visit. As old feelings rekindle, Yuwen becomes torn between loyalty to her husband and his family and the chance to begin life anew with her old flame. Cited as a formative influence by Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige, Jia Zhangke and Wong Kar-wai, Spring in a Small Town evokes the astonishing visual fluidity of Orson Welles while predicting the cinema of modernist master Alain Resnais in its beautifully affecting restraint and time-jumping, Marienbad-ish voiceover. Wei Wei is exquisite as the tortured Yuwen, her poetic voiceover suggesting a regretful ghost recalling her last possible moment of happiness; she endows the film with a tragic pain that lingers long after the wistful last shot. "An extraordinary work, anticipating Antonioni in its slow unfolding of an erotic situation, treated with a mixture of sympathy and austerity" (David Bordwell).