Springtime in a Small Town (Tian Zhuangzhuang, 2002)
Mandarin Title: Xiao cheng zhi chun
Mu Fei's Spring in a Small Town (1948) has the distinction of being the greatest Chinese film ever made, at least according to a list created by a group of Chinese film critics. It's an odd choice. Spring in a Small Town is minimalistic. Its plot is sparse, and its characters are very few and quite disconnected from each other, as can be assessed from their disconcerted conversations with each other. However, Spring in a Small Town conveys an emotionality that is visibly astounding. It is free from any histrionics or melodramatics and possesses an inert intensity that gives inward meaning to the unfeeling conversations depicted on screen.
In 2002, after ten years of absence from filmmaking by oft-praised director Tian Zhuanzhuang, he releases his version of Mu's film entitled Springtime in a Small Town. Rather than completely reworking the storyline or the characters to fit into today's social climate, Tian faithfully follows Mu's film. His modifications only visible in slight plot details and visual style. Springtime in a Small Town is for Tian a handsome ode to the understated craftsmanship of these old Chinese film masters; where style and substance majestically weave in a product that is purely magical.
The plot is essentially the same. In a town ravaged by war, Liyan (Wu Jun), chronically ill and morose husband, and Yuwen (Hu Jingfan), dutiful yet emotionally distant wife, live in their estate along with their longtime servant Huang (Ye Xiao Keng) and Liyan's younger sister (Lu Si Si). Arriving alongside spring is Liyan's former schoolmate Zhang (Xin Bai Qing), who also turns out to be Yuwen's childhood sweetheart. Love triangles emerge as their lives suddenly intertwine during that short duration of time and within the small space enclosed by crumbling walls of that war-ravaged estate within a war-ravaged little town.
The biggest difference between Tian and Mu's films is that the latter is being told from Yuwen's perspective, as explicated by the narration. Tian goes for objectivity, removing the narration and implying that the story be told from a perspective of a disconnected outsider. Moreover, Mu's placing of the entire emotional dilemma as a burden of a single character focuses on feminine longing and regret which Tian's version lacks. Tian's film, while still peering Yuwen, is scattered in its presentation and the emotional impact. It is more focused on Zhang, the stranger, who is torn apart by his loyalty to his best friend, his lifelong longing for his best friend's wife, and that emerging reminder of his youth and the mistakes that go along with it in the personage of Liyan's younger sister. On the other hand, the narration in Mu's film culminates in an ending that fleshes out the theme of life's morose character, and that its stillness might be ruined by a visitor that brings with it memories of the past. It also reveals that there is life after the film's end, and Yuwen's feelings haven't faded along with the departure of Zhang. Thus, Mu's film brings with it the idea that the temporary stay of the visitor has caused ripples in that family's very still pond.
There are other differences: certain scenes are prolonged and actions are enunciated, an additional scene that fleshes out Zhang and Liyan's little sister's relationship, the characters are given more time to sit around, relax, and reflect on emotions and thoughts. Tian sees the need to envelop his audience with the complex happenings in the house. He wafts his camera like an observant spy through the courtyard, catching the characters during intimate confessionals, or in moments of solitary inactions, or in their dramatic or subtly romantic interludes.
The cinematography by Mark Li Ping-bing is exquisite. Li evokes a similar visual tone with the one he used in Wong Kar Wai's In the Mood for Love (2000) to create an air of unaccomplished love affairs and strong emotions hiding in a wall of traditional propriety. His camera is constantly moving in careful yet deliberate fashion, making use of the house and the town's ruinous quality as instruments for his quiet observation. The hues are rich; the acting is subtle yet tremendous; the directing is sublime. The film is very very beautifully made. That said, while Mu's original film is arguably superior to Tian's remake, Tian's film undoubtedly holds considerable power.