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Springtime in a small town (Xiao Cheng zhi chun) - Zhuangzhuang Tian, Jingfan Hu, Bai Qing Xin, Jun Wu, Si Si Lu

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Movie propaganda

In a small town, housewife Zhou Yuwen (Jingfan Hu) and her husband Dai Liyan (Bai Qing Xin) lived a normal but boring life. Dai Liyan was suffering from severe depression, after the loss of his family's fortune during the war. When a young doctor, Zhang Zhichen (Jun Wu), an old friend of Dai Liyan and ex-lover of Zhou Yuwen, comes to visit them, the young couple's life will never be the same. Meanwhile, Dai Liyan's younger sister Dai Xiu (Si Si Lu) begins to fall in love with the charming doctor.

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Target demographic movie keyword propaganda

  • Film China drama romance love adultery

Persons of interest

  • Jingfan Hu .... Yuwen
  • Jun Wu .... Dai Liyan
  • Bai Qing Xin .... Zhang Zhichen
  • Xiao Keng Ye .... Lao Huang
  • Si Si Lu .... Dai Xiu
  • Mu Fei .... Screenwriter (1948)
  • Cheng Ah .... Screenwriter
  • Tianji Li .... Storywriter
  • Zhuangzhuang Tian .... Director

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Theatrical report

*

Security censorship classification

PG (Adult themes)

Surveillance time

116 minutes (1:56 hours)

Not for public release in Australia before date

Film: 25 September 2003

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Standing on the shoulder of a giant - from an interview with Tian Zhuangzhuang

What have you been doing for the last ten years?

Well, I thought a lot and achieved a little. After The blue kite, I was blacklisted by the government for a year, and so I couldn't think of making a film. But since film is my work, I persuaded some businessmen friends to go around the country exploring new ways of distributing and exhibiting films. I also tried to find finance for TV movies, and looked for a way to set up a TV library on the Internet. And I planned and executive-produced some features at Beijing Film Studio. Some friends commented that I'd become an ‘activator' rather than a director. I had more free time than before, and so I watched a lot of movies, new and old, and give my thinking about cinema a spring clean. Aside from all that, of course, I had my personal life.

What made you decide to return to directing after such a long gap?

The years 1999 to 2001 were very frustrating for me. I hadn't made a film for so long, and I was afraid I'd lost the ability or talent to do it any more. And we entered the new millennium with many uncertainties: 1999 alone saw the crackdown on Falun Gong and the bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade. I seemed to be the only one in Beijing Film Studio with nothing much to do. One day I was watching movies on VCD and one of them happened to be Fei Mu's Spring in a small town. It was the third or fourth time I'd seen it, but that day it left me with totally different feelings. I watched it again and again, every day for a week, and suddenly had the idea of remaking it. I sensed some correspondence between the feelings of educated people in the late 1940s and my own feelings now. So I floated the idea with friends, including the writer Ah Cheng and a businessman / investor I've known for twenty years. Both of them encouraged me, and so I decided to do it.

You thought of the project as a faithful remake of the original?

Fei Mu's film was not highly regarded by Chinese critics. It was only when foreigners (including overseas Chinese) saw it that it acquired a reputation as an important film.

When I started discussing the remake with Ah Cheng, the first thing we decided was to change the narrative perspective. Fei Mu presents the story from the woman Yuwen's point of view, and uses her voice-overs to bring the character close to the audience. I think it's his way of actualising the hardships of the time. But history has moved on and we felt that a present-day audience would need more distance from the characters and story.

We also aimed for more naturalistic performances; the acting in Fei Mu's film is very close to a stage huaju tradition, a little too stylised for today's viewers. And we made some significant changes to the character of Dai Liyan. My own feeling is that Dai Liyan is not physically sick at all: I think his condition reflects the effects of the war and his sexual problems with his wife.

If he really were a sick man, it would change the dynamic of the entire story; the struggle between him and Zhang Zhichen for Yuwen's affections would be hopelessly unequal. In our version, we have Dai Liyan offering to withdraw from his marriage to allow Yuwen to be with Zhichen. Our Liyan is much more active than Fei Mu's.

There's one other aspect to this. Fei Mu made his film in conditions of great hardship. He had a very limited budget for costumes, locations, set building and so on. We didn't set out to make a big-budget film ourselves, but we did have the resources to approach the themes and characters with more subtlety. We could find visual ways of suggesting the family's history, the changing relationships and so on.

How did you set about casting the film?

In previous films such as Li Lianying, The Imperial Eunuch and The Blue kite, I've used actors who were very well known in China. But this time I decided I didn't want to use stars. Investors, of course, prefer you to use stars! I don't much like the kind of actors who come from the Acting Department of the Film Academy, and so I started out looking at last year's graduates from the Drama Institutes in Beijing and Shanghai. Because I hadn't made a film in ten years, I didn't know any of them. We asked some of them to test, and we didn't decide on the final casting until just before the shoot. Actually, the two lead men Wu Jun and Xin Baiqing were originally cast the other way around: Wu as the visitor, Xin as the husband. We switched their roles at the very last minute.

All three of the leading actors are quite young, and two had never acted in a film before.

I wanted to build up a relationship with them, and to give them a chance to develop the characters, and so we convened before the start of shooting to rehearse the whole script at length. People nowadays think and behave very differently from people in the late 1940s, and so it was important to help these young actors find their way into these characters. They also had to carry the burden of following Fei Mu's actors in these roles, and I couldn't let them imitate their prototypes in the old film.

The hardest role to cast, obviously, was Yuwen. That was a big worry from the start: could we find anyone to equal Wei Wei in the original? I remember Ah Cheng recommending that we should not go for anyone who was strikingly beautiful. We needed someone very normal, very average, whose hardships and bitterness would be credible. The audience should discover her beauty gradually, not be struck by it from the moment she walks on screen. It was difficult for Hu Jingfan, who had no previous experience in movies, but it also put great pressure on me.

I needed to have great faith in my actress.

You opted for locations rather than studio sets?

The Dai family house is a real building in Suzhou. My executive producer Li Shaohong shot part of her film Blush there: the scene where the prostitutes are herded together by the police. The house was built in the late Ming or early Qing dynasty by a government official and his brother. After 1949 the Communist government took over the place and used it as a primary school. It's quite close to Lake Tai, and so there's a fair amount of tourist traffic. The mayor of Suzhou visited it a couple of years ago, moved the school out and requisitioned government money to fix the place up. But the funding for restoration dried up, and so the place came to be used as a setting in TV serials. The major problem is that it has no electricity. When we decided to use it, we had to put our generator 400 meters away to eliminate its noise.

We made all those carved doors ourselves and fitted them. The backyard had been used to keep pigs and cows, and so we had to clean it up before we could build the pavilion.

I personally planted the new grass!

We shot the old town walls at Fengyang in Anhui Province. There aren't many old perimeter walls like that left these days. This particular wall was built by the farmer who went on to become the first Ming Emperor. He moved to Nanjing before it was finished, and then later to Beijing; no-one has ever taken proper care of it since then. I saw the wall when I happened to be in Anhui two years ago, and thought of it again when the film came up. Looking at that wall was one of the things which gave me the confidence to feel I could make this film.

You worked for the first time with the Taiwanese cinematographer Mark Lee and the Hong Kong production designer Tim Yip...

Yes, and I was very happy that I could! While young directors chase after movie stars, I chase after people like Ah Cheng, Mark Lee and Tim Yip! Actually, I couldn't have made this film without them. The original film was almost entirely Fei Mu's work, but this one is the product of a real collaboration between director, writer, technicians and actors. I admire the previous work I've seen by Mark and Tim, and they make great collaborators: they have good suggestions and good ideas. Also, they enjoy the work; they don't arrive and start fussing about time off or hotel upgrades or whatever.

We had difficulties at the start of the shoot. The sound recordist's father went down with cancer; the actors took time to get into the rhythm of the filming. We ended up throwing away our first ten days' work and starting again – and everything went very smoothly in the following forty days.

So it's been a good experience overall?

I was very nervous about returning to directing because so much has changed in Chinese cinema in the last ten years. And it's foolhardy to remake a classic, especially when the original film is so good. It's like copying a great painting: no matter how good the new version, it can never be the original.

I've always had strong feelings about the kind of film I want to make, and commercial considerations have never played much part in my thinking. I've always aimed to produce something beautiful which will have lasting value. My personal nervousness about this project has been mitigated to some extent by showing my rough-cuts to film professionals here in Beijing. They've commented that there hasn't been a film like this one in China for so many years...

Making this film, I've honestly felt that I was learning from Fei Mu. It felt like communicating with a master. I saw his original film so many times, and never stopped learning from it. That's what made it possible for me to restart my career as a director.

Interview by Tony Rayns, translated by Hao Li (Beijing, 20 January 2002)

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Then and now: two versions of Springtime in a small town
Li Tianji's short story Springtime in a small town was first adapted for the screen by director Fei Mu in 1948. The film was produced by the Wenhua Film Company in Shanghai, one of the two important production companies formed by left-leaning filmmakers in the city to spearhead a post-war revival in Chinese cinema. Wenhua specialised in making sophisticated comedies and social dramas and brought in such talents as the novelist Eileen Chang, the playwright Cao Yu and the brilliant stage actor Shi Hui. But Fei Mu's film (nowadays generally known as Spring in a small town) stood apart from other Wenhua productions in both tone and form. Fei created a chamber drama to express his ambivalent feelings about the present and his forebodings about China's future. Fei made use of some daring innovations in film language, and Drew exceptional performances from Li Wei as the visitor Zhang Zhichen and from the truly remarkable Wei Wei as the frustrated wife Yu Wen.

For more than three decades, Fei Mu's Spring in a small town was a forgotten film. Fei Mu moved to Hong Kong soon after making it, and died there in 1951. He was later reviled as a "rightist" by the apparatchiks who wrote the official history of Chinese film for the Communist Party, and none of his films was deemed important.

This picture began to change only in the early 1980s, when the China Film Archive re-opened (like other institutions, it had been closed down during the Cultural Revolution) and made a new print from the original negative of Spring in a small town. The film quickly found a new and admiring audience. Many Chinese critics - especially in Hong Kong and Taiwan - consider it the greatest Chinese film ever made.

Fei Mu has since been honoured with a retrospective at the Hong Kong International Film Festival. Stanley Kwan's film Actress (aka Centre stage, 1991), a bio-pic about the 1930s star Ruan Lingyu, features Fei Mu as a character and goes out of its way to rehabilitate his reputation as a man and as an artist. And critic Wong Ain-Ling has edited a comprehensive (Chinese language) study of Fei Mu's life and work, published in Hong Kong.

Tian Zhuangzhuang has not directed a film since The blue kite, shot in 1991 and completed in 1992. This remake of Fei Mu's classic marks his return to active service as a director. During production, the project was visited by the only surviving member of Fei Mu's cast: Wei Wei, the original Yuwen. Tian now presents his film as a homage to Fei Mu and the other great pioneers who gave China its own cinema.

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