Spring in a Small Town is cited in a buncha places as being either the greatest Chinese film ever made or one of the very best, which is a risky label to ever slap on something if it’s already obscure, and you want people to seek it out, because while the movie might rightly hold a throne of, like, emotional resonance for Chinese moviegoers, particularly those of its time, a westerner like myself who knows virtually nothing of Chinese history will hear this is the culture’s finest work, watch it, and then probably have a skewed idea of what their cinema has to offer. Might get the impression that it’s too cerebral and slow, too melodramatic, too obscure.
Chinese cinema is none of those things. It’s as varied as any other.
But, at the same time, I found Spring in a Small Town so tedious, almost grueling, that I was prepared to dismiss the movie outright until subsequent research shows that it’s so highly regarded. It’s probably always the case that a movie has more to offer than what I’ve picked up by just watching it once.
So I started reading up on it and found that, in order to make more sense of the movie’s mood, you’ve apparently gotta know a thing or two about the Second Sino-Japanese War, which began in 1938 after tensions between China and an occupying/invading Japanese military broke into a gunfight in the Marco Polo Bridge Incident. The Sino-Japanese conflict got absorbed into the larger world conflict when, in 1941, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, and ended when the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima in ’45.
I’d never read anything about the Second Sino-Japanese war before this and what I’ve learned in morning of scattered reading is that it was…pretty fucked up. The Japanese were vicious in their expansion. in the Rape of Nan King (a historical episode whose name I’ve always heard without ever looking it up) Japanese forces killed 300,000 Chinese civilians and raped an estimated 80,000 women.
Apparently the American reaction to Japanese atrocities in China was to issue sanctions. They deprived Japan of oil and materials for aircraft construction. The hope was that this would hobble Japanese operations but it apparently only motivated them to buddy up with other fascist forces and, standing their ground, carry out a scorched-earth attack on Pearl Harbor.
Tryna Google a clear-cut explanation for why the Japanese attacked the US yields a ton of speculation and, offering no clear answer, emphasizes that it was a long-brewing decision. There’d been lotsa tension and the final straw coulda been several things. But one of the principle motives appears to’ve been that, if they could destroy the entire fleet of American ships at Pearl harbor, the Japanese would have full dominion over the Pacific Ocean.
All this reading is prompting me to think, more seriously than I have in the past, about whether dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima was…kinda sensible? The creation of these superweapons is inarguably one of the hugest blights on humanity’s record. No set of civilians should be held acocuntable for the war crimes of their military (what scant percentage of a military’s actions does its populace ever even know about?), so I’m definitely not on board with those who’d argue that the incineration, the slaughter, the displacement and poisoning and scorching and deformation of nearly a half-million Japanese civilians was some sort of karmic rebuttal for the Rape of Nan King or any other atrocity they committed.
But as an American who’s enjoying the victory that resulted from the bombing, and as somebody who’s only now getting a perspective that suggests the Japanese army wasn’t much friendlier than the Nazis, do I have any authority to even weigh in on the legitimacy of a maneuver that killed so many hundreds of thousands of people, razed a society, poisoned a massive region and ruined the lives of countless others?
I’m not sure.
I am, however, grateful that the Project has pushed me into a situation of having to consider it seriously. (Also, writing about this so shortly after that piece about Odd Man Out, which prompted some research into early 20th century Irish history, and how that internal conflict between the Irish Republican Army and the British influenced the larger World War — it’s shoehorning me into the insane tapestry of world events that really account for what we blanketly refer to was World War II.)
Anyway: Spring in a Small Town. The movie takes place int he aftermath of the Second Sino-Japanese War on the ruinous remains of an estate that belongs to a once-prosperous but now-pummeled family. The patriarch is a thirtysomething guy named Liyan (Shi Yu) who’s felled by some vague ailment that keeps him, weak, and needing medicine, but it’s hard to say whether he’s being made so ponderous and sad by his illness, or the grief for what his life and family and country were like before the war.
His wife, Yuwen (Wei Wei tends to him and to the home and to the needs of her bubbly teenager sister-in-law, Xiu (Zhang Hongmei).
Both Liyan and Xiu are distinctive characters but I think that, from a storytelling perspective, neither is particularly interesting. One is a portrait of consummate grief, the other of hope. So they play distinct roles, but tedious ones.
It’s Yuwen, the young matriarch, on whom director Fei Mu wisely lavishes attention. Loyal to her home and family, but clearly depressed, she’s just more interesting. You can see that she would be conflicted about this lifestyle if only there were some alternative. But there’s none. This is the bed she’s made and, to a degree, the bed that historical circumstance has confined her to.
Then Zhang shows up, one of Liyan’s boyhood friends and, coincidentally, he’s also one of Yuwen’s old flings. And as the two of them linger in close quarters over the next couple days, repeatedly finding themselves alone together, the sexual tension is remarkably high (considering the era, and censorship, and the fact that somebody so sexually aloof as myself managed to pick up on it).
Zhang, a figure from her past, appears to be both an equally-complex character (thereby infusing a bitta drama into this otherwise dour and tranquil affair) and a metaphor for better days. The pre-war idyll.
And it’s hard to determine how Liyan feels about the conspicuous flame between his wife and old friend. He does attempt suicide in the third act, which would suggest despair, but it might also be a gesture of resignation. Like Leonard Cohen singing in “Leaving the Table” about simply recognizing that the modern world isn’t his own. He’s a relic from some previous place. It’s time to move on.
Also, maybe, he’s tryna get outta the way so his wife can enjoy a more fulfilling romance?
I can see how it’s a great movie, and how it might speak with special volume to the postwar plight of Chinese moviegoers, but it also belongs to that curious stripe of film that exists better in the viewer’s memory than it does on the screen. Unenjoyable, but profound. Rewarding.