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:: Springtime In A Small Town

It is spring in a small country town in southern China in 1946. Dai Liyan and his wife Yuwen have returned to find their home half in ruins. Liyan falls ill with suspected tuberculosis and Yuwen grows increasingly distant to him, as she becomes his nursemaid. They sleep in separate rooms, putting up an appearance of a marriage until the arrival of a visitor changes things.

The visitor, Zhang Zhichen, is a doctor, an old school friend of Liyan, but unbeknownst to Liyan, is a childhood sweetheart of Yuwen. Zhichen is surprised to learn that Yuwen has married his good friend. As the story unfolds, suppressed emotions between Zhichen and Yuwen are brought to fore. This is a tale of friendship and love - a tussle between principles, morality and passion.

It is Tian Zhuangzhuang’s latest film, ten years after his acclaimed film, Blue Kite. In this remake of the 1948 classic, Tian presents Liyan and Zhichen’s affections for Yuwen on a more equal footing. Liyan is not so much depicted as an ill and physically weak man but a man suffering from the effects of the war and sexual problems with his wife. It is Liyan that encourages Zhichen to stay with them when he realises that Zhichen’s presence brings Yuwen out from her morose shell even when things get out of hand after a drinking session. Tian’s interpretation gives the story more depth.

Zhichen played by Xin Baiqing, cuts a dashing figure as the suave and sophisticated doctor while Wu Jun turns in a measured performance as the ill and bad-tempered Liyan. It is a good casting choice by director Tian Zhuangzhuang (Blue Kite) who had cast the two actors in opposite roles originally. Undoubtably, the more challenging role is Yuwen played by Hu Jingfan, who is at times coquettish and assertive with Zhichen yet restrained and cold to him at other times. Hu Jingfan is compelling as the dutiful but indifferent wife. All three leads produce commendable performances in their cinematic debut.

Granted that this is a period chamber drama, the slow pace throughout the film is a tad tedious and the stagey direction of the film is lost on the viewer. That said, the mis-en-scene is painterly, the intimate camera direction and cinematography of Suzhou’s landscape makes for elegant filmmaking. Tian’s direction is masterful, alternating between scenes of calm with moments of tension and temptation. This is a sensuously cerebral film and you will need the time to savour it.