Tian Zhuangzhuang’s 2002 Springtime in a Small Town set its petrified adulterous triangle in the historically ambiguous zone between the end of Japanese occupation and the victory of Communist revolution. Indeed, it was a movie of multiple historical ambiguities, having remade a 1948 Chinese classic. Ever since Tian broke a near decade of silence with the tale of a sickly young landowner, his unhappy wife, and their robustly progressive childhood friend, cinephiles have been rattling cages and writing congressmen in hopes of seeing its source.
Now they can. The original, directed by Fei Mu and titled Spring in a Small Town, shows twice this week as part of the Walter Reade’s “Centenary of Chinese Cinema” series. A chamber piece with a rubble-strewn location as aggressively “placeless” as the set for a Beckett play, Spring is revelatory in a number of ways—not least in demonstrating how Tian exquisitely refracted a stark contemporary drama through the prism of a double nostalgia. Increasingly claustrophobic and shadowy, Fei’s film is stranger, starker, and less subtle than Tian’s remake—closer in mood to Strindberg than Chekhov. Where the remake is deliberately distancing, the original uses a voiceover to cut in and out of the frustrated heroine’s bleak consciousness. “I simply don’t know how to live in the future,” she muses at one point. Trapped in an unsatisfying feudal marriage (to the dying past), she is drawn to the ruined city wall, in part because it crystallizes her feelings of hopelessness.
Communist commentators criticized Fei’s ideological “backwardness” and “narcotic effect”—not realizing, as Tian evidently would, the painful irony of Fei’s title and how perfectly his movie embodied the moment of its making.