Thursday, February 28, 2013

Forbidden Fruit

Film: Xiao Cheng Zhi Chun (Spring in a Small Town)
Format: DVD from NetFlix on far less kick-ass portable DVD player.

There’s been a fairly consistent effort on my part for more than a year to watch the earliest films on The List regularly. This actually has nothing to do with wanting to get past these films. It has everything to do with context. While I certainly haven’t shied away from the more recent films, I think I have a much better sense of these films having watched more from the earlier years. Today, I close out the 1940s (for now) with Xiao Cheng Zhi Chun (Spring in a Small Town).

This film was originally banned in its native China, although it is available now. I guess I can’t really be surprised that the film was banned during the political reign of Mao Zedong. This is the guy who, after all, attempted to destroy the past and erase the history of Chinese culture as being meaningless. Since its rediscovery, Xiao Cheng Zhi Chun is widely regarded as one of the great films of Chinese history. But it’s also sort of decadent in a Western/bourgeoisie sense, and I imagine that didn’t sit well with Chairman Mao.

The Dai family lives in a ruined house, half destroyed because of the war. Zhou Yuwen (Wei Wei) spends her day buying groceries and medicine and doing embroidery. Her husband, Dai Liyan (Yu Shi) claims to have tuberculosis, but Yuwen is somewhat sure that he is malingering. In truth, he is depressed over the state of the family house and fortune, because he remembers it in its glory before it was partially destroyed. His younger sister Meimei (Hongmei Zhang) doesn’t remember the early days and lives a carefree existence. Yuwen and Liyan do not have a carefree existence. The sad state of their marriage weighs heavily on both of them. With Liyan sick for six of the eight years of their marriage, they have lost intimacy and love, although they do seem to care for and respect each other.

Trouble happens with the arrival of Zhang Zhichen (Wei Li). He is the boyhood friend of Liyan and went away, traveled all over China, and became a doctor. What Liyan doesn’t know is that Zhang and Yuwen were once in love and were almost married. Their feelings for each other don’t take long to come to the surface. Naturally, Liyan is oblivious to this and things instead to set up Zhichen with Meimei when she comes of age.

That’s really the whole story here—we have a past love showing up in the present day of the characters and exposing their marriage for the faded, loveless union it has become. Naturally, both are tempted by the sudden appearance of a former lover, and this is exacerbated by Liyan’s illness and guilt. In fact, he says more than once that things would be better had Yuwen married Zhichen, not realizing exactly the pain he’s bringing up with those statements.

This is a film that requires a great deal of patience to get through, not only because of the snail’s pace of the story. No, the pace is slow, but it’s also dreamy and worth seeing. The problem here is that Xiao Cheng Zhi Chun is in bad need of being restored by some caring people who would like to return it to its former glory. There are snaps and pops on the soundtrack and one or two places where it fades out entirely, at least on this version. The film has also faded into blurs at points, making the viewing challenging.

It’s a shame, too, because I think this really might be the sort of slow-paced tragic romance that I really enjoy. It reminds me a great deal of In the Mood for Love in terms of its pacing and story, and ultimately in terms of the way the story plays out. This isn’t merely the simple story of two former lovers reuniting, but of two former lovers reuniting under circumstances that force them to stay apart from each other. In fact, the bulk of the tragedy here and thus the bulk of the dramatic action comes from this conflict between love and duty. Is it more important to follow the heart or to maintain the traditions and dictates of conscience?

The way the film plays out, the pace, and the overall story mark this is a film very much a product of its time and culture. I don’t think this is a film that could be remade today without keeping it a period piece in some respect. It almost needs to be set in the past since much of what goes on here simply conflicts with a number of modern attitudes.

Xiao Cheng Zhi Chun is a film I wanted to like more than I did, but the problems I had with it were strictly based on the poor quality of the print. I can’t fault the movie for aging, and so I won’t, but the state of the film is in such a condition that the film is difficult to recommend without someone going in and rescuing it for posterity.

Criterion, you listening? Xiao Cheng Zhi Chun might be one to look at.

Why to watch Xiao Cheng Zhi Chun: Chinese cinema from its classic period.
Why not to watch: It desperately needs to be restored.


  1. This is another one I've seen but don't remember very well. I know I really liked one of the very early Asian cinema films, and another one was just weird.

    But I *do* remember the print was BEYOND HORRIBLE. So it's funny you mention that here.

    1. I don't like to complain about the quality of a print, but there's no getting around it when it legitimately affects the viewing experience. It did here, no matter how hard I tried for it not to.

  2. I suppose I was lucky to get both a nice print and good subtitles. Even then this was one I wanted to like better than I did. Partly the fault of the period as you say, the characters are locked in a way they would not be today. But also the acting does not sit too well with me. With In the Mood for Love I totally bought the crisis and the emotions. Here they just seem to be acting. Should you even need a better copy, just let me know.

    1. I may get around to it some day. Maybe. We'll see.

  3. Spring in a Small Town reminded me of some 1930s French film with Tarkovsky as the cameraman, ignoring the director when he says "cut."

    The beginning was difficult for me to get into, but I eventually liked it quite a bit. I can see why it's a Chinese classic! (Even if I prefer The Master of the Flying Guillotine.)

    I love the little sister! She's hilarious!

    Between this and Wu Du, I saw two Chinese movies in less than a week. That doesn't happen to me very often. If ever.

    1. I should really revisit this one some time. I remember this being plagued by problems that weren't really the fault of the film, so it gave me a lesser impression of it.