Went to see Spring in a Small Town last night. What a fabulous film: BFI Sight & Sound 15th Greatest Film Ever Made. It hasn’t actually been around for long, although it was made in 1948. The BFI have spent a fair bit of time and money negotiating with the Chinese authorities to release a near perfect print. Possibly, probably the problem is that 1948 is pre-Revolutionary. I was puzzled watching it by the actors wearing Western clothes and how elegant and middle-class they looked. When we went to China in 1979 everyone wore Mao suits, but of course the Cultural Revolution was the following year 1949 so this is a view of pre-Communist China. This is the likely reason the original more or less disappeared; it isn’t hard-wired Communist: people have real feelings for one another.
So what’s it about? Forbidden love. The only subject that interests me these days: I’ve just written three books about unrequited love/forbidden love/doomed love. There isn’t in fact a very demanding narrative arc. Liyan is ailing, he has heart problems and his marriage to the utterly gorgeous, and younger Yuwen has disintegrated; in fact they have slept in separate rooms for some years. My desolate life, Yuwen says in voice-over, early in the film. In early spring, old friend Zhang, now a doctor but ten years earlier a good friend of Liyan comes to their crumbling house. Unknown to Liyan, he was an old flame of Yuwen’s. And no, he hasn’t married. So there is a love triangle, with his visit reawakening a dormant love between Zhang and Yuwen.
It is exquisitely done . . . masterly and compelling according to one critic . . . subtle and controlled and almost unbearably moving. There is a shot near the end when Liyan is lying on a bed and Yuwen is leaning in but it is lit from below the bed so that the shadows play across her face. Terrific. Also, the use of sound is interesting and effective: sometimes there is no sound at all. At one point, Yuwen says she hears a siren but we the audience don’t hear it.
The acting is a little stylised as all forties films seem to be but it is a tiny, tiny problem in comparison to the emotional charge of the cinematic experience. Head and shoulders above anything else I have seen in recent years.