A train pulls into a station, the whistle blows and a man disembarks. The year is 1946, a decade since he last wandered these familiar streets, and in that time a war has come and gone, leaving behind scarred husks of once-grand buildings. The man, whose name is Zhichen (Xin Baiqing) and who is a doctor, has returned to pay a surprise visit to Liyan (Wu Jun), a friend since childhood. And when Zhichen finds Liyan, wan and possibly tubercular, living in the roughed-up remnants of his family’s palatial estate, he receives something of a surprise himself. It turns out that Liyan’s wife of eight years is none other than Yuwen (Hu Jingfan), Zhichen’s childhood neighbor — and, we sense immediately, something more than that.
These opening scenes belong to director Tian Zhuangzhuang’s Springtime in a Small Town, and I probably needn’t say too much about what follows. Zhichen and Yuwen indeed harbor a passion that neither war nor time have managed to displace. The marriage of Yuwen and Liyan was conceived out of convenience, or necessity — they clung to one another, no doubt, as the bombs rained down from the skies, but now Yuwen’s need for a deeper bond has re-emerged, while Liyan finds himself a virtual stranger in his own home. (In one scene, he wanders off in the middle of a rowdy drinking game, and no one even notices.) Tian’s film is, after all, something of a textbook three-hander — a story about the winds of change that blow not just in nature and geopolitics but in relationships too — suffused with enough unrequited yearning for the past to make Chekhov proud.
However, none of what has been said thus far will adequately prepare you for the quiet force of Springtime in a Small Town. Unless, that is, you’re already familiar with the earlier work of Tian, one of the best and brightest of the Fifth Generation of mainland Chinese filmmakers, albeit not as well known in the West as his contemporaries Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige. His third film, the beguiling Buddhist fable Horse Thief, was once chosen by Martin Scorsese as one of the best films of the 1990s (no matter that it was actually made in 1985). Then, in 1992, The Blue Kite — a human-scale epic about China’s efforts to define a national identity in the years preceding the Cultural Revolution — resulted in Tian being banned from filmmaking in China for a period of one year. But that one year turned into 10, as Tian segued into a career as a producer and mentor to new directors and, by his own admission, began to question whether he still possessed the ability to direct.
Springtime doesn’t just bring Tian back, but allows him to pick up, rather like Zhichen, as though he never left. The result is a movie that drifts across the screen with the delicacy of linen floating on a warm breeze, whose slow, sensual camera movements are like tiptoes on rice paper, yet which can sting us with the suddenness of a bee concealed in clover. Simply put, it represents the work of a filmmaker so exhilaratingly in command of his craft that he can, among other things, turn a single image of two people standing next to each other — fully clothed, their bodies not quite touching — into one of the most sublimely erotic moments we have ever beheld on the screen.
Like Tian’s earlier films, Springtime is visually ravishing, though the commanding landscape photography (by the extraordinary Taiwanese cameraman Mark Lee) is offered not as a token of Asian exoticism but as a way of suggesting the vastness of a physical world that has little regard for the problems of man. And if at the outset the film seems less political in temperament than The Blue Kite, by the end it does not. For in Tian’s dreamlike netherworld, pitched somewhere between here and there, winter and summer, the ravages of war and remembrance can be fended off for only so long. Inevitably, Springtime in a Small Town seems to lament that it is not just buildings that are scarred by the course of human events, but people too. Then the train whistle blows again and, for a moment, it appears that all may return to the way it once was. Or will it? To quote the film itself: “Spring is as changeable as a child’s mood.”
SPRINGTIME IN A SMALL TOWN | Directed by TIAN ZHUANGZHUANG | Written by AH CHENG, based on the story by Li Tianji and the 1948 film adaptation by Fei Mu | Produced by LI XIAOWAN, BILL KONG, TANG YATMING | Released by Palm Pictures At the Fine Arts