The love triangle explored in Fei Mu’s Spring in a Small Town takes on a new depth when set against China’s post-war backdrop of 1948. The film is narrated by Yuwen (Wei Wei), a young woman stuck in an depressing marriage to her sick husband, Liyan (Shi Yu). The two characters feel weighed down by Liyan’s illness and despair, the latter caused by the destruction of his home during the war. The arrival of Zhang (Li Wei), an old friend of Liyan and former romantic interest of Yuwen, shakes the household to its core. Over the course of the film Yuwen and Zhang are drawn to each other more and more, struggling to leave the past behind when the present is so dim.
Spring in a Small Town takes place after the war with Japan and the Chinese Civil War in 1945. Film production slowed drastically during the Japanese Occupation, and Spring was created when film production resumed. Spring in a Small Town was the last film directed by Fei Mu before he was forced to flee to Hong Kong to avoid persecution during the Communist Revolution. After his arrival in Hong Kong in 1949, Fei did not make any more films before his death in 1951. Spring is considered to be Fei’s greatest accomplishment, although he and his works fell into obscurity until the 1980s following the Cultural Revolution.
The theme of war and loss weighs heavily on the characters of Spring in a Small Town. Amidst the crumbling rubble of their home, Yuwen and Liyan struggle to move into the future. Meanwhile Liyan’s alarmingly cheerful teenaged sister (simply referred to as “Meimei”, the word for “younger sister” in Chinese) represents China’s bright future. Zhang’s character is also rooted in the future. He wears western-styled clothing and works as a modern-day doctor, starkly contrasting Liyan and Yuwen’s traditional clothing and style of living.
Zhang’s arrival to the household adds a vitality sorely missing from the family (despite Meimei’s constant cheer). He serves a different purpose for every character, but provides a positive influence across the board. He is able to match Meimei’s excitement and playfulness, while inspiring hope in both Yuwen and Liyan. None of the characters want Zhang to leave, but his past relationship with Yuwen complicates the family relationships the longer he stays.
The film is understated and demure, much like its heroine Yuwen. However, at times I thought the acting was trying to overcompensate for the film’s subtle nature. Yuwen’s character tends toward the dramatic, while Meimei’s intense cheerfulness is grating. Liyan, too, is guilty of dramatic antics, however he remains largely solemn throughout the film. Aside from Yuwen’s narration, the film features little dialogue, sometimes causing the pace to slow to a crawl. Many of the film’s most anticipated moments never come to pass, perhaps disappointing only American audiences not accustomed to loose ends.