Xiao cheng zhi chun / Spring in a Small Town

Xiao cheng zhi chun / Spring in a Small Town (1948)

I don't think I remember him ever wearing a suit

Director: Fei Mu
Writers: Li Tianji
Date: 1948

Genre: Drama
Description: Romance, a love affair, a small town, trapped in a marriage, life, learning to live on

Cast:Wei Wei, Shi Yu, Li Wei, Zhang Hongmei, Cui Chaoming

Crew of note:

Runtime: 93 mins.
Color: BW
Trivia: #1 on the Hong Kong Film Awards’ 100 Greatest Chinese Films list

A decade after the war, Yuwen and Liyan try to rebuild their lives and their ancestral home in a small, nameless town somewhere in China. Stricken with a heart ailment, Liyan spends his days bedridden, cared for by his wife, sister and caretaker. Zhicheng, a friend from Liyan’s childhood, returns as a doctor to stay with the family, and it turns out he and Yuwen also share a past. At first, his arrival brings familiarity, but many changes are afoot.

Seemingly simple yet immensely deep. For a movie made right after the war and during a confusing and tumultuous time in China, the movie feels very assured, confident, and complete. While the cinematography and music only serve its purpose, the movie’s characters and the depth of the story are enough to make this film deserve its spot as a classic.

The story focuses on Yuwen, who is torn between Zhicheng (modernism) and Liyan (tradition), but the premise of the film is literally years ahead of its time. The movie was made 2 years after WW2, but takes place 8 years after, and the China that the movie paints remains one of the most real depiction of that period, despite being made earlier. The hopelessness, lack of enthusiasm, loneliness, destruction, and dividedness of the characters are all unique allusions to period.

Liyan with his sickness and sincere feelings, Yuwen torn between responsibility and love, and Zhichen struggling between his friendship and his desire, are all complex and modestly approached with hand gestures, body postures, silence, and simple dialogue. The internal conflict here is obvious, and it is heart wrenching. It is intimate, balanced, and nonjudgmental. In fact, that may be the film’s greatest achievement.There is no antagonist in this movie, and despite the conflict between the characters, it is impossible to say that one is better or worse, deserves more or less, than any of the others. When the film is resolved, it is difficult to say whether it is right, appropriate, or morally good. All three are equals, and must make their own decisions. Fei Mu is able to pass on his nonjudgmental attitude to the audience, and we can only watch as the story unfolds.

The movie is also filled with symbolism: the shots of the crumbling wall, the handkerchief, the house’s broken wall, etc. It is a joy to try and find the many subtleties Fei Mu has included in the film. The only shot outside the small town’s wall occurs during the last scene, when everything is resolved and the characters are no longer trapped within themselves.


things to take note of
The architecture
Wei Wei’s gestures and expressions
Shi Yu’s posture
The internal conflict

best moment
Their afternoon walks along the wall

why you should watch this
A rare glimpse at post-war, pre-communist, semi-rightist Chinese cinema. Considered #1 for a reason, though of course the choice is debateable.

rating: 9

Plot: A
Cast: B+
Cinematography: B
Music: C+
Entertainment: B

similar movies, maybe:
Tian Zhuangzhuang’s version