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Springtime in a Small Town (Tian Zhuangzhuang) 2002


    An elegant shout-out to old school China and Chinese filmmaking, Tian Zhuangzhuang’s Springtime in a Small Town is completely unembarrassed by its straightforwardness, and that’s a bigger achievement than it might sound in this day and age. It is apparently the remake of a classic 1948 Chinese film by Fei Mu (which I haven’t seen), but unlike most reworkings of classic films, it feels no need to comment upon the datedness of the melodrama that unfolds. Instead, it uses the classic structure of the original to illustrate how timeless its concerns were, and make the gap between then and now seem narrower. As a bonus, because today’s audiences watch it with different dramatic expectations than audiences in 1948 did, it has a sense of nostalgia and loss that only enhances the feelings of wistfulness that already exist in the script.


    The interactions between the characters in Springtime obviously form a political allegory, but rarely have I seen allegorical conceits that were as likeable as these characters are. With a cast that really only has five roles, the movie flirts with being a chamber drama, but with intense attention to environment and a great eye for natural detail that disqualifies it from that genre. Starting in the spring following the chaos of World War II, the film opens with the question of whether a fresh start or a recreation of things lost should arise from the rubble. A love triangle arises, and through that the movie quite plainly asks whether our attentions should be focused on preserving the ailing past or abandoning it to start anew. Zhuangzhuang’s exquisite direction ensures that although the plot might stay simple, it remains visually and psychologically captivating. One scene, shot in a long take, in which he has two prospective lovers shift around two electric lamps – one lit, one not (a metaphor that extends throughout the film) – to illustrate the ebb and flow of their feelings toward one another, is about as complexly choreographed a scene – both emotionally and physically - as you’re likely to find in a film this year (unless you count the just as impressive games of paper-rock-scissors that are played later on). Just as you think the sequence has as much weight as it can bear, however, he has Yuwen, the woman, leave the room momentarily, only to overhear the cough of her sleeping husband while she’s passing by his chamber, suddenly putting her mind back on the reality of her situation. Touching scenes like that one are the rule in Springtime, and they feel much more poignant for not having to strive for effect. In his film, Zhuangzhuang creates delicate balance of style, text, and subtext that’s so simple and precise that anything discordant would topple the balance, but against all odds, nothing does.


* * * * 


Jeremy Heilman