Liyan (Wu Jun) and his wife Yu Wen (Hu Jing-fan) are living a quiet life amidst the Chinese depression of 1946, just after the war has come and gone to leave the community in ruins. Liyan has a strange sickness that keeps him from much physical exertion and Yu Wen selflessly tends to his needs before picking up the apparently singular available time occupier of needlepoint. Together, they look after Liyan's vibrant younger sister Xiu (Lu Si-si) and rarely speak as they pass the days.
Suddenly childhood pal Zhang Zichen (Xin Bai-quing) comes for a visit. He happens to be a doctor so he's able to slowly break the self-perpetuating exile Liyan has placed on himself, and cheery enough to restore a smile to Yu Wen's face. This introduction is also where the entire outline of the movie can be predicted as soon as it is learned that the downcast figure of Yu Wen also used to know Zhang, not just her husband.
While Yu Wen's motivation remains in question for a good deal of the film, whether she's a Lady Macbeth in disguise or an eventual saint, the outcomes of interaction between characters never fall outside the boundaries of the standard couple-trouble story. Zhang is going to look like a savior for Yu Wen's martyrdom, Liyan is going to see the possibilities of these two together and do something drastic, and the finale won't bring any surprises.
But standard plot devices aside, the building of tension is so well paced through fine acting and dialogue that Springtime never quite loses attention. The atmosphere is also perfectly lensed by Wong Kar Wai cinematographer Mark Li Ping-bing (In the Mood for Love, Fallen Angels). There is as much beauty to the decay as there is in a singular flower or the reflection of candlelight in a mirror. The environment is as much of a person as those portrayed within, and that these external forces play a part in the story's structure creates a more universal focus for some of the questioning about human nature that ensues.
Springtime in a Small Town may be a string of metaphors explored time and again in cinema, but it still deserves merit for being stunning to watch and willing to keep even the most dramatic difficulties between two people to low key climaxes.
Reviewed at the 2002 New York Film Festival. Aka Xiao cheng zhi chun.
Run time: 116 mins
In Theaters: Thursday 11th December 2003
Distributed by: Palm Pictures
Production compaines: Beijing Film Studio
Contactmusic.com: 3 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 88%
Fresh: 37 Rotten: 5
IMDB: 7.0 / 10
Director: Tian Zhuangzhuang
Screenwriter: Ah Cheng
Starring: Jingfan Hu as Yuwen, Wu Jun as Dai Liyan, Bai Qing Xin as Zhang Zhichen, Xiao Keng Ye as Lao Huang, Si Si Lu as Dai Xiu