Like the morning vapors rising from a river, a mist of unfulfilled longings veils the turbulence of Springtime in a Small Town, the exquisitely crafted new film by Chinese director Tian Zhuangzhuang. Tian’s first feature in the decade since his politically outspoken family drama, The Blue Kite, is also his quietest, remaking a 1948 Chinese classic to marvelous effect.
Deploying a mobile camera in the service of a poignant chamber drama, Tian maps an impossible romantic triangle that plays out in the historically ambiguous zone between the end of the Japanese occupation and the victory of the Communist revolution. A sickly young landowner and his demurely provocative wife are unexpectedly reunited with their childhood friend-an incongruously cheerful doctor who, having fought successfully with the Communists, lands in the couple’s doleful midst.
Liyan (Wu Jun), the neurasthenic “young master” of a half-ruined estate, is cranky and spoiled, peevishly nursing his melancholy in the confines of the house’s walled garden. His wife, Yuwen (Hu Jingfan), slight but steely, with thin, fine features and a sense of unhappy self-possession, has given up on the idea of having children and moved into her own bedroom. The pair, along with Liyan’s overperky teenage sister Xiu (Lu Sisi) and a humble family retainer (Ye Xiaokeng), are seemingly the only inhabitants of their war-devastated provincial town when Dr. Zhang Zhichen (Xin Baiqing) returns after an absence of 10 years.
Tian gets superbly nuanced performances from an inexperienced cast and choreographs his ensemble scenes with considerable self-assurance. The camera wafts through the garden and circles the house, peering in through the windows at various family gatherings. Shot by cinematographer Mark Li Ping-bing (responsible for a half-dozen films by Hou Hsiao-hsien, as well as In the Mood for Love and The Vertical Ray of the Sun), the movie is opalescent. Narrative action is uncannily attuned to specific times of the day. Nearly every scene begins with a carefully designed-but casually presented-scenic vista. Tian puts tremendous emphasis on the natural world, whether in Liyan’s garden or the crucial conversation where Zhang and Yuwen indicate their feelings for each other while overlooking the void of an enormous gorge.
Springtime in a Small Town is a movie of indefinable moods and subtle emotional coloration. Events come to a head during Xiu’s 16th birthday celebration. Everyone drinks too much, and after disconsolate Liyan wanders off into his garden to cry, Zhang rambunctiously serenades the two women. “Little sister, remember—you’re only 16 once,” he tells the adoring Xiu, a remark poignant enough to send Yuwen off to her room as a spiderweb of passions threatens to crack the narrative’s porcelain surface.
Tian’s rarefied atmospherics are not without a delicate suggestion of political allegory. As its title suggests, Springtime presents an ironic—perhaps false—awakening. The well-intentioned and cosmopolitan doctor comes close to parodying the forward-looking enthusiasm of a Communist positive hero; rowing his friends on the lake, he bursts into an ode set to “The Blue Danube,” singing of spring before spring arrives. Similarly, the periodization of the pre-Communist moment gives Springtime a double nostalgia, as well as an undercurrent of historical pathos.
Fei Mu’s 1948 Springtime is widely regarded as a masterpiece-some consider it the greatest of all Chinese films. Never having seen it, I can only imagine how Tian may have annotated the original in his remake. The second Springtime is predicated on a sense of ’50s filmmaking (not unlike the heightened Sirkness of Todd Haynes’s Far From Heaven) that could hardly have existed in the original. Even as homage, Tian’s movie seems to be among the finest expressions of the Chinese new wave.