Saturday, July 25, 2009

Xiao chen zhi chun (Spring in a small town, Fei Mu, 1948)

Xiao chen zhi chun (Spring in a small town, Fei Mu, 1948) is, for the record, considered the best Chinese film ever made by both the Hong Kong Film Awards Association and by the Hong Kong Film Critics Society.

That's a fearful burden for any film to bear (even Welles' Citizen Kane), and the highest praise I can think of is that one understands its present high reputation (it used to be criticized by the Chinese government for not being sufficiently political, though one suspects the real problem is that, as Wade Major's essay accompanying the DVD puts it, the film emphasizes personal problems and interiorized drama over explicit issues and nationalist sentiments). Fei's classic is a haunted film, full of moons framed by drifting clouds, strange slow dissolves within the scene (what, you wonder, do the dissolves mean and why at that particular moment?) and sad, silent rooms drenched in wordless mystery.

Fei employs immediate setting as a reflection and extension of character. The broken house symbolizes not only the husband Liyan's poor health but the country's--it's set immediately after the Second World War, when China had yet to rebuild from the sufferings and devastation inflicted on it by Japan. The wife Yuwen finds herself often walking alongside a partly wrecked wall, and as the film progresses one can't help but suspect that she projects her view of her self on that wall, that she feels her life to be every bit as desolate, as useless, as that wall. When the doctor Zhichen arrives to pay Liyan a visit we first see him walking down an open road, a symbol of approaching change. When Yuwen comes out to greet the new visitor (who, as it turns out, was a former lover of hers), and is framed with broken wall to the left, green shrubbery to the right. It's as if she were already caught--or trapped--between the two worlds represented by husband and ex-lover.

The camera often moves in on characters to break up the often flat-looking black-and-white imagery. It attempts to bring the imagery to life, so to speak, by giving depth to empty space, solidity and thickness to objects and people.

Then there's the body language--Yuwen first introduces herself to Zhichen as a formal hostess, with both hands linked together under her breast (the hands look as if they were under great tension, ready at some signal to pull her apart). Liyan is often caught reclining on an ornate chair or canopied bed or against the rubble of a broken wall--resting, in effect, on evidence of his former wealth or evidence of its present ruin. Zhiyang is often photographed in relaxed, confident poses (save for one scene where he presses himself flat against a wall to hide from annoying, innocent Mei, Liyan's younger sister).

Perhaps the single most overwhelming impression one has coming away from a viewing is of a hypnotically leisurely pace. Fei almost always dissolves to the next scene (and as mentioned, will sometimes dissolve in the middle of the scene, for no apparent reason), he will hold a shot for as long as the character within the shot needs to finish his or her errand or bit of business. This languorous rhythm has the effect of heightening the realism (one thinks of the celebrated kitchen scene in Welles' The Magnificent Ambersons, made six years earlier--strange, but that film seems so much more immediate and modern (despite its turn of the century setting) than this, Fei's masterpiece) and intensifying the eroticism (the often silent, often wordless meetings between Yuwen and Zhiyang have the breathless impact of outright sex in today's more explicit (unfortunately, in my opinion) age). When Zhiyang suddenly seizes a wounded hand and presses it to his lips, the act has the effect of curling one's startled toes.

Fei's film is often called subtly understated, with the exception of the voiceover by Wei Wei, the actress playing Yuwen; I tend to think of the device (describing a scene in words while presenting said scene onscreen) as something Robert Bresson will develop and perfect later, in his own films. Also think everyone from Wong Kar Wai to Edward Yang to the great Hou Hsiao Hsien must have been influenced by this little chamber drama (not to mention Tian Zhuangzhuang with his acclaimed remake).

One shot occurring early on in particularly stays with me: Old Man Huang looks for his Liyang, pokes his head through a hole in a wall, then walks around said wall to talk to the young master; the camera doesn't follow the faithful servant around but instead moves forward to peer through the hole in the wall.

Why does the camera follow Huang, which would be the more natural choice? Is Fei celebrating some value through the move--elegance, perhaps, or economy of effort? I don't know; all I do know is that the shot is an inexpressibly beautiful one, that it haunts me to this day. My favorite explanation is that Fei does it because he simply can, that the move is Fei's way of expressing the freedom of the camera: to follow or not follow, peer or not peer, surprise or not surprise. Freedom to make personal choices, on the part of the filmmaker or characters--one of the film's central themes, and one of the reasons the picture got into trouble with the authorities. Seems to me Fei knew what he's doing, after all.

Maybe not my favorite (I'd have to set aside Hou Hsiao Hsien, Edward Yang, Tian Zhuangzhuang and King Hu among others), but definitely a great film.


Nathan said...

DVD? Tell me more... All I have is a chinese import, with both versions, which looks fancy, but the subtitles of which are absolutely atrocious.

Noel Vera said...

Netflix has a DVD with subtitles. I'm assuming it's commercially available. The print is fuzzy as hell, but it's recognizably the 1948 film.