Dir: Tian Zhuangzhuang. China-Hong Kong. 2002. 116mins
Springtime In A Small Town is a glossy period piece, which coolly depicts the pressure-cooker atmosphere created in a small family following the arrival of an unexpected house guest. Director Tian Zhuangzhuang, who has not made a feature since his celebrated The Blue Kite in 1992, has lost none of his craft. The tension is carefully ratcheted up as the film adds thin layers of detail about the relationships of the main trio and as past loves are allowed to bubble to the surface. The remake of a classic Chinese picture from 1948, Springtime breaks little ground in term of subject, but it should appeal to mature art-house audiences around the world thanks to the timelessness of its emotions and its sublime execution. The Tian name and accolades at Venice, where it won the renamed San Marco Prize as the best film in the alternate competition or Upstream section, should also give it wider play on the festival circuit.
The political setting of the film probably meant more at the time of the original work. Springtime starts by establishing the young husband and wife as part of the leisured middle classes, whose former glory and social status has been smashed by the Japanese war against China. A single family retainer, the servant referred to only as old Huang (Ye), is maintained and the partially wrecked house feels too big and airy for the couple and a younger sister. It is an open invitation for trouble.
Although the arrival of the guest Zhang (Xin) is gently humorous (he and Huang play out a Keatonesque moment), the grounds for later conflict are soon established. Husband Dai Liyan (Wu) is made to feel impotent, as his introduction of Zhang to his wife Yuwen (Hu) is quickly shown to be irrelevant. Zhang is the long-lost best friend of Dai, and the former sweetheart of the feisty Yuwen, frustrated by her arranged marriage.
After that peak, the pressure is temporarily reduced as Zhang makes use of his medical skills to treat the grouchy Dai and the kittenish younger sister Xiu (Lu) takes a shine to Zhang. The atmosphere darkens again when Zhang finds that Dai's physical ailment is no more than a heart murmur, but discovers how little his (metaphorical) heart feels for Yuwen. Zhang brings new life to the closed-up house, but this is a love triangle, where each has to suppress their true feelings. Eventually, of course, Zhang is called on to save the life of his love rival.
Tian's direction is masterful as he alternates moments of calm and formality with scenes of temptation and tension. In lesser hands, use of Yuwen's lost handkerchief would be deflatingly melodramatic, but Tian keeps it symbolic and simple. Xiu's birthday celebration shifts smoothly from innocent party to drunken revel with Yuwen coming close to losing her self-control.
While there are a few wide-angle scenes on windswept cliffs above the villa, letting some air into the picture, much of the film takes place within the house and garden, delivering a feeling of confinement and imminent explosion. This is aided by precision cinematography and a carefully selected palette of colours - prison greys in the garden, high gloss blacks and ambers indoors.
For adult audiences capable of reading between the lines, Tian's Springtime is strewn with subtle symbols and coded danger signs.
Prod cos: China Film Group Corp, Beijing Film Studio, Beijing Rosat Film-TV Production in association with Fortissimo Film Sales, Paradis Films and Orly Films
Int sales: Fortissimo Film Sales
Prods: Li Xiaowan, Bill Kong, Ting Yatming
Exec prods: Wouter Barendrecht, Michael J Werner
Scr: Ah Cheng, based on story by Li Tianji and Spring In A Small Town, directed by Fei Mu
Cinematography: Mark Li Pingbin
Cost, prod des: Tim Yip Kam-Tim
Ed: Xu Jianping
Music: Zhao Li, Liao Jiawei
Main cast: Hu Jingfan, Wu Jun, Xin Baiqing, Ye Xiaokeng, Lu Sisi