Or, in English, Spring in a Small Town.
In the years this blog has been in existence, I’ve watched and reviewed films in several foreign languages—but never Chinese. Then, some time back, I came across this film, and discovered that in 2005, it was named—by the Hong Kong Film Awards Association—the best Chinese film ever made. That (coupled with the fact that Xiao Cheng Zhi Chun is available in the public domain) made me eager to watch it.
An hour and a half later, I’m still wondering how to describe this film. It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before (though the theme, and occasionally the treatment, reminded me of Charulata): it’s simple yet complex, interesting yet sometimes tending to drag. Based on a short story by Li Tianji, this was the last film to be directed by Fei Mu, one of pre-Communist China’s most prominent film makers.
The film consists of only five characters. There aren’t even any extras—it’s almost as if the eponymous ‘small town’ is peopled only by ghosts. It is almost as if the town is dead. Even the five characters of the story seem to be surrounded by decay in different forms.
The house in which the story is set is half in ruins. Its garden wall has collapsed, and the garden itself is more a wilderness than a thing of beauty.
The deadness of the town is also reflected in the crumbling city walls. This is where Zhou Yuwen (Wei Wei) goes walking every morning, after she has done the grocery shopping for the day. We do not see her visiting shops or haggling with shopkeepers; just walking slowly, all alone, with her basket on her arm, along the city wall.
Yuwen , we learn (from Yuwen herself—her voice provides a narrative of sorts now and then throughout the film), has been married to Dai Liyan (Yu Shi) for the past eight years. In those years, tragedy has struck: Liyan has lost all his family wealth, and has been an invalid for the past six years. He suffers from tuberculosis, Yuwen informs us in a voiceover, but she thinks it’s neurosis.
Perhaps with reason. Liyan’s helplessness in the face of his long-drawn illness has made him bitter and angry. When Yuwen, coming home from the market with his medicine, hands it to him, he petulantly flings the pill box into the debris of the garden wall. Yuwen patiently picks it up and hands it back to him.
Of the other people in the household, one is Liyan’s younger sister, Meimei (Hongmei Zhang). Meimei is nearly sixteen, and is a bubbly, cheerful teenager, whose sunny outlook on life is in sharp contrast to her brother’s despair and sulkiness on the one hand, and Yuwen’s longsuffering stoicism on the other. Meimei sings and dances about, grows bonsai, loves the fact that spring is here—and is generally the life of the house.
The fourth person in the house is the servant, Lao Huang (Chaoming Cui). Lao Huang has been a servant in the Dai household since Liyan was a child, and is the epitome of the quiet, dependable servant who is almost like a member of the family.
To this house comes a guest, one day: Zhang Zhichen (Wei Li). Zhang used to be a childhood friend of Liyan’s, but has been gone from the town for the past ten years. He now lives in Shanghai, and is visiting town again. When he arrives at Liyan’s doorstep, their reunion is an extremely joyful one; Liyan, for the first time in who knows how many years, is all smiles.
Lao Huang also recognises Zhang as Liyan’s old schoolmate, and is equally happy. He joins Liyan in insisting that Zhang spend some days with them. He goes off to prepare a room for Zhang, and to inform the mistress, Yuwen, of the guest who’s arrived.
Yuwen comes out to the garden to meet this guest. Lao Huang hasn’t told her anything about who the guest is, so it comes as a shock to her (and to Zhang) to discover that the man they’ll be playing host to is the man whom she had once been in love with.
Yuwen and Zhang don’t pretend to be strangers in front of Liyan; Zhang tells his friend that he and Yuwen used to live on the same street. He does, however, hide the fact that they were deeply in love—and that ten years ago, when he left the town and went away, he had not expected that when he saw Yuwen next, she would be married to someone else. And not just someone else, but Zhang’s own best friend.
Meimei, when she returns from school, is initially unable to recognise the guest. But when she discovers that it is ‘Big brother Zhang’, her welcome is as effusive as Liyan’s or Lao Huang’s had been. She sings for Zhang, she comes to his room to present him with a small ‘bonsai landscape’, set in a tabletop flowerpot… she brims over with affection.
The stage is set. The characters are all in place. There is Yuwen, pushed by her conscience and her sense of duty into being devoted to her husband (in one scene, she admits to Zhang that she has “forced” herself into caring for Liyan). But the care and devotion seems, to Yuwen at least, all one-sided: Liyan is too sickly to reciprocate, and often (as we’ve already seen) repays her solicitude with impatience or annoyance.
On the other hand, there is Zhang. Successful, attractive –and the man whom she once loved. And whom she still has some feelings for.
These feelings come to the forefront as the days go by: a strange but understandable blend of emotions. Anger and resentment at the way Zhang had left her ten years ago; despair and self-pity at how she is now tied down to an invalid; a burgeoning passion that threatens to overwhelm even Yuwen’s own strong sense of duty.
Zhang too is caught in a conflict. He still loves Yuwen, but is very aware that she is the wife of his best friend. A friend, moreover, who is an invalid, and is furious at his own helplessness. In a moment of despair, Liyan tells Zhang how he hates being ill, because his frustration at his illness has forced him to neglect Yuwen, and even makes him lose his temper with her. He doesn’t want to; she doesn’t deserve it—and yet he can’t stop himself.
As if this triangle wasn’t enough, there’s also Liyan’s young sister, Meimei. Meimei was only six when Zhang left town, so (though she calls him ‘Big Brother Zhang’, and is cheery and chatty and openly affectionate), it soon becomes apparent that her feelings towards the doctor aren’t strictly those of a ‘sister’ towards a ‘brother’.
(One telling scene is when Meimei comes to Zhang’s room to place a little bonsai landscape on the large table. She sees a pot of orchids that Yuwen has placed on the table too, and remarks to Zhang that the orchids smell too sweet. Jealousy, even if only slight, has reared its head).
…and Liyan (surprisingly observant, considering he doesn’t seem to realise the relationship between Yuwen and Zhang), sees that Meimei is, if not in love, at least quite interested in Zhang. It would be a perfect match, Liyan mentions to Yuwen—will she be good enough to suggest it to Zhang?
Where is this unfortunate criss-crossing of emotions headed? Both Yuwen and Zhang are caught between their consciences on the one hand and their mutual passion on the other. Yuwen’s marital life, in any case, seems to be headed nowhere. But what of the two other people? What of Liyan, who does care for Yuwen but cannot compete with her old love—neither on an emotional level nor (since he is an invalid) a physical one. What of Meimei, the child-woman who sees and understands more than the people around her think her capable of?
Xiao Cheng Zhi Chun is, as I mentioned earlier, a simple story. There are no complicated plot developments, but a slow, believable exploration of human emotions. Nobody is black or white: neither the wife whose heart is straying, nor the husband who loses his temper with her, nor the friend who is tempted to resume an old affair. These are people. Not larger-than-life, not cardboard cut-outs. But real people one can relate to.
What I liked about this film:
The subtle way in which feelings are often shown just through expressions or silences. Yuwen is the prime example of a very quiet person (possibly a reflection of the ‘traditional Chinese wife’? I can’t be sure, since my impressions of Chinese culture are based on popular fiction and film). She doesn’t say very much, not even to Liyan. She is always polite and obedient, going quietly about her work, and rarely letting her feelings show.
But we can feel what she feels. The way she strolls slowly along the city wall, lingering there as if reluctant to go home; her retreating with her embroidery into Meimei’s room during the day; her silent picking up of Liyan’s medicines when he’s flung them away in a fit of anger… it’s not hard to guess that even though she never says so, Yuwen is a sad, lonely woman who is forcing herself to be the dutiful wife.
(And the sight of that crumbling wall is such an apt metaphor for Yuwen’s own life).
What I didn’t like:
Oddly enough, the silences that work so well through most of the film occasionally fail to impress—possibly because of the complete lack of sound. For example, there’s a heavy-with-passion scene between Zhang and Yuwen, which (though there’s a lot going on), is filmed in utter silence. Even the normal sounds in a room—of footsteps, the rustling of cloth, breathing—are missing, making it appear more than a little unreal.
Personally, I also found the film a little too meandering and slow at times; but that just might have been me.
Overall, I thought it a quiet, sad and simple story about human emotions. Little melodrama here, and no high histrionics or sudden plot twists; but a good story nevertheless.
Xiao Cheng Zhi Chun is in the public domain; you can watch it online (or download it) with English subtitles, here.