Like its title suggests, Zhuangzhuang Tian’s Springtime in a Small Town is a quiet and contemplative picture, focusing on a love triangle in 1946 South China—less than a year after the beaten Japanese fled from China. Dai Liyan, the only surviving male of the Dai family, returns to his family’s quaint ancestral home after the war to find it in tatters. Taking his wife Yuwen, his sister Xiu—a 16-year old student in the local school—and his faithful servant Lao Huang, Liyan moves to the peaceful Flower Pavilion, which has remained relatively shielded from the bombs. Soon after, Liyan begins to fall ill from suspected tuberculosis—husband and wife begin sleeping in separate beds, and the master gives up thoughts of children. The household falls under a somber pall—Yuwen frequently cries in her room at night, her once vivid energy sapped by her husband’s sickness. The future appears bleak until Zhang Zhichen—an old friend of Liyan’s from college—arrives unexpectedly one evening. Now a qualified doctor, Zhichen’s expensive attire and dignified career are a sharp contrast to the old-fashioned tone of the Flower Pavilion. Emotions deepen when it’s revealed that Yuwen is no stranger to Zhichen—they were childhood sweethearts, having come tantalizingly close to running away together. As Zhichen, Liyan, and Yuwen rediscover each other, they begin to uncover where their hearts truly lie—and what’s real compared to a façade.
Springtime in a Small Town uses a straight-forward narrative structure to tell a straight-forward story—Kenji Mizoguchi’s Crucified Lovers employed many of the same techniques to tell a similar tale of a confused triumvirate back in 1953. What’s noteworthy in Springtime in a Small Town, though, is how normal and relaxed the most emotional scenes are. There’s the occasional burst of energy—Zhichen sweeping Yuwen into his arms in a spontaneous fit of passion, Zhichen teaching Xiu how to dance—but most of Springtime in a Small Town revolves around genuine, simple moments. It’s striking how subtly Tian treats Zhichen’s evolving feelings for Yuwen, or how selfless Liyan’s feelings for Yuwen are—even though the passion has dissipated from their (arranged) marriage, a heartfelt bond between the two has formed over time, and none of Springtime in a Small Town‘s occurrences change that. Even potentially devastating happenings are diffused by the respect each character has for one another.
Several directors come to mind while watching Tian’s patient and tender direction—Yasujiro Ozu (Late Autumn, Tokyo Story), Wong Kar-wai (In the Mood for Love), Anh Hung Tran (Scent of Green Papaya, The Vertical Ray of the Sun). All are serene filmmakers that use imagery and authentic situations to convey their themes—of them, Tian’s style is closest to Ozu. His camera isn’t static like Ozu’s, but it’s not far from it—Tian utilizes slow pans and tilts that linger on situations for long stretches. This style occasionally drags, but more often brings our attention to the lovely color schemes surrounding the characters, and the thoughtfulness that goes into every action. Springtime in a Small Town may not be a transcendent experience like In the Mood for Love—like Ozu’s work, it’s a bit too restrained, at the cost of emotional connectivity—but it’s a charming mood piece that fans of the aforementioned directors should seek out.