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Terence Shen's Column

Film Review: one of the greatest Chinese movies ever made

Spring in a Small Town has been regarded as one of the masterpieces of Chinese cinema. It was produced in 1948, one year before the end of civil war. The film is a beautiful artifact. The storyline is not complicated, and melancholy in part. In a dilapidated village, Yuwen is living with her tubercular husband Liyan. He feels live is meaningless but only embroidering in her room or wandering along the ruined city wall. When her lover doctor Zhichen returns to the village and finds out that she already married to his best friend Liyan, a triangle theme kicks off. Finally, Liyan recovered from illness with Zhichen’s help, then the doctor left village.

The director Fei Mu presents an spellbinding esthetically and modernist work by employing modern cinematic techniques in dissecting mise en scene. In the beginning of the film, a female voice-over first catches audience’s attention.Yuwen’s narration covered whole movie. Through which, somber wife, desperate husband, and their hopeless household are vividly presented to the audience. Woman narrating is rare in mid-20 century China when female is often discriminated. It suggests that Yuwen is the leading character in the film whose life will be watched by audience with emotion. In other words, the audience can hear “what is happening from her viewpoint and enter very deeply into her subjective world” (Daruvala 2007,176). Daruvala also notes that the music on the soundtracks further enhances the Intimacy of the voices.

Except voice-over, other modern cinematic techniques were used in the film. We see that the “dissolve” was used whenever Yuwen or Liyan appears in the scenes. “Dissolve” means “a transition between shots in which one shot begins to fade out as the next shot fades in, overlapping the first shot before replacing it”(Phillips, 2009). For example, the shot that describes Yuwen is dejected walking slowing along the wall fades out, then the village fades in. The shot that Liyan is sitting on the ruins fades out, then the window of his sister’s room fades in. These slow transitions of shots enhance presentation of inanition and stalemate of their marriage, especially their negative attitudes toward the meaning of lives. Another impressive technique used in the film is low angle camera. When Yuwen is wondering along the city wall, the camera shoots up at her from a low angle, to emphasize her dissatisfaction with her marriage life.

It is obvious that the positioning and movement of camera plays a crucial role in this film. Apart from the low angle camera, “Pan” is also applying to the film perfectly. For instance, when the sister is singing for Zhichen in the room, Yuwen feels embarrassed when she faces two men. Zhichen stares at Yuwen ignoring singing sister. We see the camera moves to project each person one by one horizontally. It vividly shows their different actions, expressions and contemplations. In a party scene Fei Mu shoots when all the people sit at the table, the position of camera is fixed and pans as well.

The elements of the Chinese poetry and esthetics should be accentuated here. Through out the film, elaborated “set design” shows that village is empty and dilapidated, the house is fragmentary, and trees sway with the wind. It seems a typical Chinese traditional black-and-white brush painting. It can be seen again at the very ending, Liyan and Yuwen are standing on the hill watching Zhichen leaving. The couple are put at the lower left side of the screen, perfectly meeting the rule of “Golden Section”, other parts are just space of sky. In Chinese culture, it is believed that both imperfect and space are beauty, esthetically speaking.

In addition, The characters in the movie is also the incarnations of beauty of Wenyi. The hand gestures of Yuwen is stimulated from that of woman characters in Chinese traditional melodrama such as “Kunqu”. In Chinese storys, the woman is always obedient and constrained by social rules. Yuwen in this movie obviously has the same destiny. From Chinese traditional point of view, only compliant woman is beautiful and lovable. It is hard to know if Fei Mu believed Chinese tradition is hopeful when it encounters Western culture and technology and if Yuwen’s final decision to stay with her husband is right. At least the film is a perfect combination of Chinese esthetics and modern cinematic technology. After all, Fei Mu presented a beautiful and great masterpiece to the audience.



Terence Shen

February 6, 2011



Daruvala, Susan. 2007. “The aesthetics and moral politics of Fei Mu’s Spring in a Small Town.” Journal of Chinese Cinemas 1: 3.

Phillips, William H. 2009. Film: An Introduction. New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s.


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One thought on “Film Review: one of the greatest Chinese movies ever made

  1. I’ve said that least 4919101 times. The problem this like that is they are just too compilcated for the average bird, if you know what I mean

    Posted by a4919101 | January 5, 2012, 3:31 pm

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