Tian Zhuangzhuang is one of my favorite Chinese directors. His new film, Springtime in a Small Town , is his first since The Blue Kite (1993) got him in trouble with the Chinese authorities for its acerbic portrayal of the Cultural Revolution. Springtime in a Small Town is a far quieter and less ambitious film, but a beautiful one nonetheless…
Actually, Springtime in a Small Town is a remake of a classic Chinese film from 1949. (My friend Yomi Braester, an expert on Chinese film, tells me that the original is much better). Be that as it may, Tian’s Springtime in a Small Town is a powerfully affecting film. It’s a melodrama–always one of my favorite genres–focused on a romantic triangle: a sickly husband, a gloomy wife, and the husband’s old friend, who turns out to have been in mutual love with the wife, way back when before she was married.
It’s a film of small and acute observations of events that never quite happen. The wife and the other man don’t sleep together–though they almost do–and the husband doesn’t succeed in killing himself–though he tries. Springtime in a Small Town eschews both of the two extremes between which melodrama moves: hysterical passion (think Wuthering Heights) on the one hand, and monstrous repression, impotence, unfulfillment, and entrapment (think any of Douglas Sirk’s 1950s melodramas) on the other.
Instead, Springtime in a Small Town stakes out a passage in between, where feelings are never entirely repressed, but they never burst out of control either. The center of the film, and its most brilliant scene, is a birthday party in which a series of drinking games lead to recognitions on the part of all three protagonists. Smouldering passions rise up to the surface, but somehow remain implicit and unspoken. We suddenly realize that we are in quite a different situation than we thought. In subsequent scenes, the protagonists give full vent, not so much to lust and despair, as to their unresolvable ambivalence. Desires are acted upon, but not pushed to their conclusion. The film ends on a quiet, melancholy note