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By Phil Hall | October 10, 2007

“Spring in a Small Town” was one of the last major films produced in China before the Communist takeover. Fei Mu’s 1948 melodrama is deceptively simple in its concept and deeply profound in its contents.

The beautiful young Yuwen (Wei Wei) is living a ruined life in her marriage to the sickly Dai Liyan (Yu Shi). In fact, she is literally living in ruins – her home is the shell of Liyan’s once-grand family mansion, where a single elderly butler and Liyan’s excessively precocious kid sister also reside. The monotony of Yuwen’s life is disrupted with the unexpected arrival of Liyan’s childhood friend Zhang Zhichen (Wei Li), who recently graduated from medical school. Unknown to Liyan, Yuwen and Zhang were previously in love in the years before his unhappy marriage.

“Spring in a Small Town” uses this schematic to build a tight, emotionally tense triangular drama that questions fidelity, suppressed emotions and the balance of love and responsibility. At the center of this passionate work is a remarkable performance by Wei Wei as the woman at the center of the drama. Despite the appearance of well-groomed stoicism, she provides a running and disturbing narration that is equal parts bitter and hopeful. Her outer composure and inner torment create a bold and jolting work of art that demands to be seen.

This is not to say the film is perfect. Some of its symbolism is a bit heavy (the ruined mansion could easily stand in for post-World War II China), and the print used for this DVD release was clearly not restored (although the English subtitles are very clear to read). Nonetheless, it is a fascinating production and one that should be a must-see for any lover of Chinese cinema.

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