It feels as though there are two movies at work in Springtime in a Small Town. The first is an exquisite film made by cinematographer Mark Lee, who previously worked on In the Mood for Love (2000) and At the Height of Summer (2000) . His film is an explosion of colours which in many ways surpasses his previous work, through the employment of a palette of colours that highlights the conflict between the beauty of the countryside and the war-ravaged domestic environment where much of the drama unfolds. Set on the cusp of spring, Lee accentuates the changing season through the subtle employment of light and shade, tones that reflect the changing mood of the narrative.
The other film marks the return to directing of Tian Zhuangzhuang, whose last film The Blue Kite (1993), a detailed chronicle of recent Chinese history, saw the director banned from making films for over a year. It is a remake of Fei Mu’s 1948 drama, Spring in a Small Town. Though overlooked for 30 years, it is now regarded as a classic of Chinese cinema. Both films, adapted from Li Tianji’s short story, tell of a love triangle between married couple, Yuwen (Jingfan Hu) and Dai Liyan (Jun Wu), and Zhang Zhichen (Bai Qing Xin), an old friend of Dai Liyan and unbeknown to him, also Yuwen’s first love. As Yuwen and Dai Liyan have become distanced over time, the arrival of Zhang Zhichen causes passions and jealousies to boil over.
Zhuangzhuang’s film is something of a disappointment. Like many of the original ‘Fifth Generation’ films, it is measured in its pacing, paying close attention to every detail. But no matter how impressive the technical skill of the film is, like the recent films by Zhang Yimou, it is something of a step backwards for the director of On Hunting Ground (1984) and Horse Thief (1986). Zhuangzhuang claims the film is a homage to the original, paying respect to a film that rarely received any attention from Chinese critics or filmmakers. However, aside from changing the acting style and reducing the staginess of the original to benefit modern audiences, little has been done to give the film any feeling of contemporary relevance. Compared with Far From Heaven (2002), Todd Haynes’ contemporary updating of a Douglas Sirk melodrama, Springtime is an exercise in style with no relevant substance.
Zhuangzhuang does elicit fine performances from his mostly non-professional cast, however, and every aspect of the film’s design is meticulous. This may account for the amount of praise lavished upon it at international festivals. Ultimately, Springtime in a Small Town is a film out of time. Chinese cinema has moved on into a genuinely exciting period that feels no need to constantly look backwards to address issues arising today. Gritty realism has merged with art cinema to produce films like Zhang Ke Jia’s Xiao Wu (1997). As a result, many Fifth Generation directors have found themselves foundering in their search for a voice that will appeal to a new generation of cinemagoers. Chen Kaige unsuccessfully moved to the west with the laughable Killing Me Softly (2002), and Zhang Yimou has moved from directing sentimental dramas to a kung-fu epic, Ying Xiong (2002), which may be entertaining, but pales in comparison to his early work. Tian Zhuangzhuang may have been involved in bringing on the new talent that has helped define this new generation, but as a filmmaker himself, he has yet to break new ground.