Category Archives: Spring in a Small Town

Review of Spring in a Small Town

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.

Zhang (Li Wei) and Luwen (Wei Wei) in Spring in a Small Town

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.

Spring in a Small Town Review


Spring in a Small Town, which is recognized as one of the best movies throughout Chinese history, has won worldwide fame and recognition. This complicated emotional movie portrays the conflict between traditional morality and personal happiness. The small focused look into a love triangle reflects the society as a whole and is a metaphor for the conflict for the  Chinese culture between old and new.

Fei Mu is the most famous pre -1949 communist revolution film director in China. Spring in the Small Town was produced in 1948 and marked the peak of his movie career. Spring in the Small Town has a strong focus on personal emotion, feeling, and characters. Also, its triangle love story challenged the social value and morality at that time. The movie was not famous immediately because communist party banned the movie. However, the movie was rediscovered later on and received wide recognition domestically and internationally.

The movie is about a triangle love story between three main characters, Liyan Dai, Yuwen Zhou and Zhichen Zhang. Liyan and Yuwen have married for eight years throughout the Second Sino-Japanese War. However, there are no love feelings in their marriage, and Liyan has been seriously sick. Therefore, Yuwen takes a role of serving him instead of considering him the person whom she loves. They lead a hopeless and routine life. Everything changes when Zhichen, Yuwen’s previous lover and Liyan’s good friend, has an unexpected visit to the home. Yuwen’s love and hope seems triggered by her memory of Zhichen. However, still a wife for his sick husband Liyan, she is in great agony since her pursuit of love with Zhichen conflicts with her traditional morality to her husband.

The movie is in the special period of Chinese history, right after the Second Sino-Japanese War and before the civil war. The whole society and infrastructure was in ruin after the eight-year long war period. However, people started to have some hope to lead new lives. Also, as the society advanced from the emergence of western economy and development, modern beliefs started to impact the society on a large scale. They were merging into people’s deeply rooted traditional Confucius culture. Liyan represents the old belief and traditional Chinese society with his stand as a master in a house with an old servant. Zhichen is considered the new hope for China: energetic, healthy and westernized. However, Yuwen is kind of in between, who wants to pursue her happiness with her modern thoughts but is still tied in her old belief of morality. Yuwen’s dilemma denotes the conflict between old and new after the end of Sino-Japnaness War.

The movie interestingly takes an objective standpoint for this sensitive love triangle situation between Liyan Dai, Yuwen Zhou and Zhichen Zhang. There is no right or wrong for different characters. The objective view of director greatly challenges the ideology of the society and is considered brave and groundbreaking by the general public. The whole theme of the movie is about conflicts between the morality and personal happiness for Yuwen. On one hand, Yuwen wants her true love, Zhichen, in life. On the other hand, Yuwen wants to still have responsibility for the family and her husband. Which is right? The director is trying to be objective, because both point of view has a cultural implication and cannot be judged right or wrong.

The director is trying to enable the viewer to reflect with his closed distance shoot and slow pace. Throughout the movie,  Fei Mu carefully uses a medium close-up shoot technique for the characters at a really close distance. From the short distance, we can clearly see the characters’ emotion and facial expression. The camera always stays static for a couple of seconds for the medium close-up shoot. From the slow pace, we can see the characters’ emotion. Actually, the whole movie is slow in pace, giving us plenty of time to carefully observe the scene and reflect on situation. The viewer can peacefully enjoy the movie and follow the train of thought of the characters.

As one of the most famous and influential movie in the Chinese history, Spring in a Small Town shows its special beauty from its slow pace and strong emotion. History, culture, love, hope, responsibility, morality and many other aspects all mix into this triangle love story and enable the viewer to reflect on the characters and the society as a whole.


Baidu Baike. Baidu, n.d.. Web. March 1, 2014. Feimu (early movie director). (费穆(中国早期电影导演)

Baidu Baike. Baidu, n.d.. Web. March 1, 2014. Spring in a Small Town (1948 Fei Mudirected movie).(小城之春(1948年费穆执导电影))


Spring in a Small Town

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 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.