This exquisitely made love story, which marks the welcome return after 10 years of inactivity by director Tian Zhuangzhuang, is a good bet for successful worldwide arthouse distribution, targeting the audience that went for “In the Mood for Love.” High-quality production should garner supportive critical reaction and word of mouth should ensure solid theatrical and ancillary trading.
Tian, blacklisted for opposing government policies on human rights, returns with a remake of one of the most illustrious films from China’s past. The original “Springtime in a Small Town” (also known as “Spring in a Small City”) was made by pioneer director Fei Mu in 1948, not long before the Communist Party took over the country. Tian’s remake is basically faithful, though there are changes in emphasis.
The year is 1946; the war against Japan is over, but the shattered buildings in this small town are testament to the awful conflict that has so recently ended. Dai Liyan (Wu Jun), a well-to-do aesthete, lives in the part of his old family home that is still habitable. Eight years ago, he entered into an arranged marriage with Yuwen (Hu Jingfan), but they have no children and now sleep in separate rooms.
Yuwen is bored with life, and spends her time embroidering, while Liyan, who is sickly, thinks he might have TB (“My health is beyond repair, like this house,” he asserts); though only 30 years old, he does little except putter about in the garden. Also living in the house are Liyan’s teenage sister, Xiu (Lu Sisi), and the old family servant (Ye Xiaokeng.)
Their lives are interrupted by the arrival of Zhang Zhichen (Xin Baiqing), a doctor from Shanghai. He is Liyan’s oldest friend, but they haven’t seen each other in 10 years, and he is unaware of Liyan’s marriage. Indeed, he’s startled to meet Yuwen, his first sweetheart; he hasn’t seen her since she was 16.
Zhang is welcomed into the house, and Liyan is delighted to be reunited with his old friend. In a departure from the original film, an examination by Zhang of Liyan proves he does not have TB — perhaps his illness is caused by something else, something psychological. The presence of the charming stranger brings vitality to the moribund household, and soon they’re singing songs (one, to the music of “The Blue Danube”) and playing games. Meanwhile, Zhang and Yuwen go for walks beside the old town wall, which is now in ruins, and the attraction they once had for one another re-emerges.Matters come to a head at Xiu’s 16th birthday party, when both Yuwen and Zhang drink too much. That night, Yuwen comes to Zhang’s room and, when he rejects her, they struggle, and she cuts herself on broken glass. Incident triggers a near tragedy that will change the lives of all concerned.
Pic is a love story in which each character is forced to conceal his or her true emotions. In this hermetic world of former privilege, there is no hint of the massive changes about to affect life in China forever.
Tian cast the film with newcomers — only Ye Xiaokeng, as the old retainer, had ever made a film before. They all rise splendidly to the occasion, with Hu Jingfan magnificent as the lonely wife who can scarcely conceal her frustrations. Equally good are Wu Jun as the gentle, suffering husband and Xin Baiqing as the outsider tempted to seize a chance at personal happiness but at the cost of the damage done to his closest friend.
The film is visually rich. Taiwanese d.p. Mark Lee, who has worked on many films with Hou Hsiao-Hsien and who shot “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” provides elegantly subtle lighting, his camera gliding smoothly through rooms and along the paths outside the house. Cheng Guangming’s production design perfectly captures an atmosphere of a once-grand mansion that has barely survived the ravages of war, while costume designer Tim Yip (also from “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”) handles his chores with professionalism.