Zichen and Yuwen on the broken wall that lines the town.
Fei Mu’s Spring in a Small Town (1948) offers an intimate view into the lives of the Dai family eight years after the second Sino-Japanese War. This film, an example of Chinese post-war cinema, intricately addresses the internal conflict that occurs at the juncture where duty and obligation to one’s family meet feelings of love and desire.
This internal conflict is specifically seen in the wife, Dai Yuwen. Her narration of the film offers the viewer an inside look into her unhappiness with her husband, Liyan, and their small, smothering town. Liyan is extremely sickly and spends his days sitting in the ruins of their broken-down home. One day, a surprise visitor, Zhang Zichen, appears at the Dai household to see Liyan. Unbeknownst to Liyan, Zichen and Yuwen have a past history that resurfaces upon seeing each other again. Zichen’s ten-day stay with the Dai family is filled with drama, secrecy, and repressed love, which always keeps the audience guessing.
The traditional Chinese family values of a wife’s piety and obligation to her husband are a major theme in Spring in a Small Town. It is clear that Yuwen is not satisfied with her home life because of her brooding and ill husband. When her past love, Zichen, arrives at her home, she constantly battles between the duty she must have for Liyan and her love for Zichen. Yuwen knows that according to traditional family values, she should remain with Liyan. However, knowing what she should do does not stop her from wanting Zichen, and this internal battle is apparent throughout the film.
Another theme in this film, brokenness, is clear even from the first scene. After the opening credits, a full shot shows Yuwen, walking along a broken and tattered wall that lines the city, a place that she reveals helps to clear her mind. Her house is also in shambles; broken and toppled-over walls line their property. This theme of brokenness is most apparent in the scene in which Yuwen and Zichen meet at the wall to speak about their past love for one another in private. Rather than speaking face-to-face, the two stand shoulder to shoulder, staring straight ahead while pressed against one of these deteriorating walls that line the village. As they discuss their lingering feelings, they are looking away from their town and the life that ties them to this place of unhappiness.
Actress Wei Wei’s portrayal of Dai Yuwen’s inner turmoil regarding her relationships with Liyan and Zichen is extremely convincing. She plays the role in a modest manner, yet at times she can be rather unpredictable, making bold statements and drunkenly flirting with Zichen. Because of this versatility, Wei Wei’s performance is the best in the film. Yu Shi is effective in his role as Dai Liyan, because although his character is sickly, Shi portrays him in a way so that his presence still remains important in the film. Moments of tenderness with Yuwen humanize him and make Yuwen’s decision even harder to predict. Finally, Wei Li’s performance as Zhang Zichen is also very strong. Li plays the role of Zhang in a very likeable way, not being overly insistent that Yuwen come away with him, which earns him the viewer’s support. Due to the convincing acting in Spring in a Small Town, the audience sympathizes with all of the characters, and therefore grapples with Yuwen as she battles with the difficult decision between staying with Liyan and leaving with Zichen.
Spring in a Small Town offers love triangles, suicide attempts, and difficult life decisions that intrigue the audience from the opening credits. However, the pacing of the film is rather slow and unhurried, and its most frustrating aspect is the lack of a neat ending that provides closure. However measured the pacing of this film may be, its slowness does offer an intimate and thorough look into the lives of Chinese townspeople and, through Yuwen’s internal conflict, the traditional Chinese familial values. Spring in a Small Town demonstrates the effect of these values on a Chinese woman in the post-war era: she must decide between following tradition by staying with her husband and leaving with the man she loves.