Noah Cowan on Spring in a Small Town

Approx. Duration: 2 hour 2 minutes

TIFF Cinematheque - Retrospective

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Noah Cowan, Artistic Director, TIFF Bell Lightbox and programmer of A Century of Chinese Cinema, introduces our screening of Fei Mu's Spring in a Small Town, considered by many critics to be the greatest Chinese film of all time.

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).

Guest Biography

    • Noah Cowan
    • Appointed Artistic Director for TIFF Bell Lightbox in 2007, Noah Cowan drives the curatorial vision for the year-round programming in TIFF's new home. Some of his contributions to programming since the opening of TIFF Bell Lightbox in September 2010 include the curation of Essential Cinema, a major inaugural gallery show detailing the inspiration behind 100 key films in cinema history, and significant retrospectives on Raj Kapoor and Gregg Araki. He was also the Toronto curator for Tim Burton (a project of the Museum of Modern Art, New York) and Fellini: Spectacular Obsessions (which premiered at the Jeu du Paume in Paris in 2009). He has also interviewed countless personalities on the TIFF Bell Lightbox stage and his original writing appears in 180°, TIFF Bell Lightbox's seasonal programming guide. Cowan has written critically on film for Canadian and international publications and served on numerous juries and award panels in North America and overseas. He continues to be involved on a number of boards and committees, adding to his expertise in advocacy, policy development and public affairs.

Noah Cowan on Spring in a Small Town

    • Spring in a Small Town
    • Fei Mu
    • 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.