Set in a world totally closed in on itself, Xiao Cheng zhi Chun was shot in the ancient walled city of Songjiang (near Suzhou) in what was left of an old residence half destroyed by Japanese bombing. The time was not specified and there were only five characters: the wife, the husband and his young sister, the old servant and the wife’s former love. To describe the special atmosphere of the story, Fei Mu used a totally original cinematographic language. A succession of simple and beautiful images slowly flowed with the wife’s long interior monologue, in which she describes her loneliness and the sadness of her life because her husband, closed off in depression, seemed to ignore her completely. She was desperate when a knock on the door and the arrival of her former love led her to many unexpected emotions. Few words were exchanged; the feelings were expressed with great sincerity through the actress’s gestures and changing expressions. Wei Wei was perfect in her role. She came from the theatre and had acted during wartime in Zuolin’s Kugan troupe before most of the troupe were brought into Wenhua in 1946. Xiao Cheng zhi Chun was certainly her best performance, although she played in other important films produced by Wu Xingzai such as: Da tuanyuan (The Great Reunion, 1948) or Jianghua ernü (The Show Must Go On, 1951).
Marie Claire Kuo and Kuo Kwan Leung
Rediscovered and restored only in 1981, Fei Mu’s most resonant film is now widely recognised as a pinnacle of Chinese cinema: this is a chamber-film which prefigures much of the ‘modernist’ cinema of the 1950s, from Antonioni onwards. Put together at short notice to fill a gap in Wenhua’s production schedule, it nails the sense of frustration and anomie which followed the defeat of Japan in 1945. It’s set not in the ‘small town’ of the title but in a somnolent country estate where the crumbling walls symbolise the state of China after the war. Using just five characters the film diagnoses a spiritual malady and proposes a way forward.
There’s one brilliant innovation in film grammar (dissolves ‘within’ scenes), but the film’s greatest strength is the ensemble work: the sense that everyone involved is working for the same goal. As a measure of the mood in Shanghai’s artistic-intellectual circle in 1948, this is matchless. The actors are all excellent, especially first-timer Li Wei as the visitor, but Wei Wei has the indelible role of a lifetime as the frustrated wife. The uncut version of Jia Zhangke’s documentary I Wish I Knew contains a wonderful tribute to the film, including a candid interview with Wei Wei and revelations from Fei Mu’s daughter Barbara Fei about her father’s ruinous entrapment in political infighting.
Cast and Credits
Sog.: LiTianji. Scen.: Li Tianji, Fei Mu. F.: Li Shengwei. M.: Xu Ming, Wei Shunbao. Scgf.: Zhu Dexiong, Chi Ning. Mus.: Huang Yijun. Int.: Wei Wei (Zhou Yuwen, la moglie), Shi Yu (Dai Liyan, il marito), Zhang Hongmei (Dai Xiu, la sorella di Liyan), Cui Chaoming (il vecchio domestico), Li Wei (Zhang Zhichen, l’amico). Prod.: Wenhua. DCP. D.: 93’.
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