spring-in-a-small-town-feb-4thAs a consequence of the chaos in China following WW2, this marvellous film did not reach the West until the 1980s. Dutiful wife Yuwen (Wei Wei) nurses her disabled husband Liyan (Yu Shi). When his best friend Zhichen (Wei Li) reappears, the relationship he previously had with Yuwen threatens the marriage’s stability, as her feelings are re-ignited. Comparisons can be made to Brief Encounter but Spring in a Small Town has its own cinematic originality. “Mu truly has crafted one of Chinese cinema’s quietly devastating landmarks. Spring in a Small Town explores the anguish and uncertainty of the late forties through a tale of repressed love that can’t help but move you.” Ben Nicholson, CineVue. (Cert U)
Dir: Mu Fei 94 mins China 1948

Programme Notes

Spring in a Small Town
China 1948 94mins Cert U

Based on a short story by Li Tianji and regarded as one of the finest works from the first great era of Chinese filmmaking, Fei Mu’s quiet, piercingly poignant study of adulterous desire and guilt-ridden despair is a remarkable rediscovery, often compared to David Lean’s Brief Encounter (1945). After eight years of marriage to Liyan – once rich but now a shadow of his former self following a long, ruinous war – the dejected but devoted Yuwen does little except deliver his daily medication. A surprise visit from Liyan’s friend Zhang re-energises the household but also stirs up dangerously suppressed longings and resentments.

Director Fei Mu’s deft use of locations, dissolves and camera movements makes for a fraught, febrile mood of hesitant passion, entrapment and ennui. In addition to its recognition of reality at its dreariest, Mu’s film is also a work of anticipation, a cadenced and artistic exploration of hope in the form of a guest. Cinematically and psychologically sophisticated, Spring in a Small Town (made before the Communist takeover of the Chinese mainland) was nevertheless suppressed for many years by the authorities because of its lack of an overt political message, despite being set in 1946 just after the surrender of Japanese occupying forces. Credited with only one more feature (Sheng si hen, 1948), Mu died in 1951, at the early age of 44.

Restored by the China Film Archive in the 1980s, as part of the Digital Restoration Project, Spring in a Small Town looks amazing on this BFI DVD with many frames absolutely pristine. There is some flickering contrast and some unrepairable damage but it is minimal. Overall, in-motion, the image looks quite impressive considering the film is 68 years old. The mono audio has a bit of echo – noticeable at times – but the overall clarity of the sound confirms it too had some thorough restoration.
Acknowledgements: Jordan Richardson, canadiancinephile.com , Gary Tooze, dvdbeaver.com
“A brilliant, de-politicised film with rich characters that has influenced film-makers like Zhang Yimou (To Live), Chen Kaige (Together), Jia Zhangke (Still Life) and Wong Kar Wai (In the Mood for Love). Essential viewing for cinephiles everywhere” Gary Tooze, dvdbeaver.com

Zhu Yuwen – Wei Wei
Dai Liyan – Shi Yu
Zhang Zhichen – Li Wei
Lao Huang – Cui Chaoming
Dai Xiu – Zhang Hongmei

Director – Mu Fei
Production Design – Ning Che, Dexiong Zhu
Original Story – Tianji Li
Cinematography – Shengwei Li
Original Music – Yijun Huang


“What a gem of a film! I’ve never seen a film with such a small cast.”

“Super! It just goes to show you can’t beat a monochrome film. Let’s have more!”

“The old love triangle always comes up trumps.”

“Maybe not a masterpiece but the elegant staging and cinematography compensated for the rather simplistic love triangle story. It’s just a shame Mu Fei didn’t make more films in his lifetime.”

“Most interesting film – non-political and prior to Mao. Wonderful depiction of Chinese sensibilities of the time.”

“I thought it lacked both the power and subtlety of Brief Encounter and In the Mood for Love. The story was predictable but the film was so well made that I forgave it for the melodrama it slipped into at times. By the end, it was a relief it was over – I was getting weighed down by the oppressive nature of the situation.”

“No Madame Bovary she! Quite a long encounter, in fact (!). However, what snappy dressers – and Clark Gable for a servant!”

“Powerful. Sometimes puzzling use of silences”

“Oh, the formality, the repression, the inactivity, the non-communication ….”

“A strange and innocent tale – hard to relate to the political turmoil. Very interesting folk songs and the idyll by the river. Strange, dream-like soundtrack.”

“A Victorian morality tale!”

“Solidly made but too predictable. Pacing a bit off at times and the voice-over wasn’t too helpful.”

“Slow paced but not slow”

“Introduction of the characters was a bit clunky. Interesting study of manners but manners maketh a mess!”

“And off into the sunset went Zhang – leaving poor Yuwen with the malingerer Liyan.”

“I think they all needed something to do!”

“Was this where Marlon Brando and James Dean learned their method acting techniques?”

“I could see the comparison with Brief Encounter but the husband was a bit of a wimp and didn’t really look ill at all. Good acting by Wei Wei (the wife). The guest (Li Wei) showed remarkable self-control. Instead of vitamins, perhaps he should have given the husband Viagra!”


A:7, B:12, C:12, D:5, E:1 to give 63%