WHAT'S IT ALL ABOUT?
Tian Zhuangzhuang's Springtime in a Small Town is a poetic, ponderous remake of a celebrated 1948 Chinese film by Fei Mu. You might know Zhuangzhuang's name—he directed the politically charged The Blue Kite in 1993 and was promptly banned for 9 years from filmmaking in China. Springtime in a Small Town marks his return to the cinema, and although the film is decidedly more personal and insular than The Blue Kite, it's every bit as powerful and marks the homecoming of a uniquely insightful director.
Springtime in a Small Town is a faithful recreation of the earlier work (originally titled Spring in a Small Town), offering up a resonant tale of repressed emotion against the backdrop of a crumbling, post-WW2 China. As we behold the ruin of a physically and emotionally seared landscape, we're carefully introduced to the mysteriously ill and depressed Liyan (Wu Jun), as well as his unfulfilled and tired wife, Yuwen (Hu Jingfan). Also in the picture is Liyan's unaccountably optimistic, coming-of-age little sister Xiu (Lu Sisi). They occupy a dilapidated oasis within a kind of ghost town, and the desolation surrounding them has inevitably infused their lives. We learn this almost by feel, through long quiet takes and silent character studies.
Everything changes with the arrival of Liyan's old friend Zhang (Xin Bajqing), who over 10 years has been educated in Shanghai and is now a cultured, esteemed doctor. He also was once Yuwen's lover. In an aching attempt to recapture a sense of vivacity in her life, Yuwen finds her dwindled soul drawn to Zhang, despite her marriage to Liyan. A sad, reluctant triangle develops between the three, and Xiu plays her part in the drama, too, further complicating these matters of the heart. The film plays out with a forlorn inevitability that draws you in more and more as it plays out before you.
One of the beautiful aspects of this quiet, haunting romance is the very cautious, human interaction between these proud people, and Zhuangzhuang knows precisely how to convey the deepest twists and tugs of a withered soul. The meticulously recreated setting, along with Lee Ping-Bin's subdued, traditional Chinese cinematography and actors completely in tune with the souls of these characters, provides for a very particular conveyed emotion.
Springtime in a Small Town is characterized by a tender holding back of emotion that feels just right. It's a deep melancholy that's hardly communicated in gestures or facial expressions or dialog, but it comes at you forcefully nonetheless. Yes, the pace is slow, and the film requires a patient audience. But its rewards are generous. We should feel glad, and appropriately melancholy, that Zhuangzhuang has returned to the screen.
HOW'S IT LOOK?
Palm Pictures presents Springtime in a Small Town in a good anamorphic-widescreen transfer of the film's original 1.85:1 theatrical presentation. Detail is quite satisfying, reaching into backgrounds, and the film has a pretty good sense of depth. The film's color palette is decidedly low-key, but the transfer brings across the limited color range with accuracy. Facial tones appear perfectly natural.
HOW'S IT SOUND?
The disc's Dolby Digital 2.0 Mandarin track—the only option on the disc—is perfectly in service of this contemplative, dialog-driven film. Voices are clear and natural, coming straight from the center with very slight diffusion into the left and right for a somewhat open soundfield. Ambient noises are treated subtly across the front. The wispy score by Zhao Li is also center-focused.
The disc offers only English subtitles.
WHAT ELSE IS THERE?
The disc boasts what appears at first to be a modest array of supplements—until you check out the running time of the Making of Springtime in a Small Town featurette. This is a 60-minute full-fledged documentary. Sprinkled liberally with interview snippets with director Tian Zhuang Zhuang and other key crew members, as well as scenes from the film (perhaps too many), this subtitled documentary follows the production of the film in a haphazard way, and never actually identifies its many interview subjects. Despite obvious flaws (including some very odd camera movement during the interviews), this is a satisfying and detailed look at the making of the film. I especially enjoyed the actors' thoughts about how they approached their individual characters, and I appreciated Zhuang's willingness to talk about the shooting of certain scenes.
The next supplement, the 16-minute Radio Interview, is an interview with director Tian Zhuang Zhuang, conducted through an interpreter by Leonard Lopate on WNYC radio, broadcast May 13, 2004. This is a nice conversation, but a drawback is that you can't fast-forward through it.
The film's Trailer is presented in non-anamorphic 1.85:1 widescreen. This is one of those tone-poem trailers that relies solely on the film's imagery—an effective silent piece.
You also get Previews for Last Life in the Universe, Time of the Wolf, and 6IXTYNIN9.
WHAT'S LEFT TO SAY?
Springtime in a Small Town is very much worth your time, if you're willing to invest the patience it requires. It's a quiet, inner film that you'll be thinking about long after the credits roll. Image and sound quality are above average, and supplements are surprisingly generous. Give it a shot—if you're in the mood.