Springtime in a Small Town

It’s now a decade since Tian Zhuangzhuang made The Blue Kite, the remarkable story of an ordinary family’s perseverance through Mao’s Cultural Revolution, which underlined its director’s key status among the 1980s insurgent so-called ‘Fifth Generation’ that also saw Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou come to prominence. While it brought him international acclaim, the Beijing authorities were not best pleased with the film, and it’s perhaps no coincidence that his first new offering in all that time is a return to one of the venerable classics of the Chinese screen, 1948’s delicate love story Springtime in a Small Town.
Thankfully, Tian’s version is a triumph in its own right, a faultlessly-shaped period melodrama set in 1946, as an ailing aristocrat and his wife return to his family’s ancestral home after the war. Soon they’re joined by a young doctor, the wife’s former flame, who can’t quite diagnose his old friend’s illness, but reckons it may be a nervous complaint brought on by his disintegrating marriage. What follows is an understated variation on the eternal triangle, conducted in hushed tones and repressed emotions, bathed in elegantly half-shaded lighting courtesy of brilliant cameraman Mark Lee (who’s worked with both Wong Kar-wai and Hou Hsiao-hsien).
The performers are clearly attuned to this language of stolen glances, none more so than beautiful leading lady Hu Jingfan, but it’s Tian’s stately direction which lends the film its controlled maturity. Just take a look at the scene on the lake, and see how he choreographs the camera as it glides alongside the conversation unfolding during a boat trip, the speed and angle of momentum judged to perfection. A true grace note in a film of exquisite moments.
(China, 2002. English subtitles. Colour. Dolby digital stereo. 112 mins.)

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