Set in China in 1946, Springtime in a Small Town tells the story of a sickly young man, his unhappy wife and their unexpected visitor, a childhood friend of both. The dynamic seems familiar in this psychosexual chamber piece, with tensions one could trace in plays from August Strindberg up through Tennessee Williams. The wife wants to rekindle an old flame, the ailing husband is torn between remorse at his failure as a husband and endorsement of the affair, and the visitor is confused and conflicted.
Dai Liyan and his wife Yu Wen live in some comfort in their roomy home, despite the fact that the town around them has several bombed-out areas, remnants of the recent war with Japan. Dai is effete and seemingly consumptive, roaming about his estate in a distracted manner, wondering if he should change his medication, while Yu Wen fills her time with pointless embroidery and bitter silence. One day, Dai’s old pal Zhang Zhi-chen shows up, a childhood chum who’s now a doctor based in Shanghai. The symbolism here is very tidy. Just as the faded glory of the Liyan family reflects the condition of Dai’s marriage, the fortuitous arrival of a doctor is a sign that somebody is going to be treated for what ails them, and it won’t necessarily be Dai.
Not that Zhang and Yu Wen immediately fall into each other arms. It takes a while for them to acknowledge the obvious, and then the push and pull of attraction is driven by shared guilt feelings toward poor Dai. Yu Wen even momentarily entertains the idea of trying to match Zhang up with her 16-year-old sister, an obnoxiously cheerful tyke who could easily pass for 12. This, of course, goes nowhere.
The movie is very slow, which can be invitingly contemplative if you’re in a receptive mood — or, if you’re not, just … slow. There’s a lot of beautiful cinematography during the outdoor scenes, and the film feels like an adapted stage play (it even has that standard play scene where somebody gets drunk and reveals too much), though in fact the source material is a Chinese film from 1948, obscure in the States but reportedly a big influence on that master of mood-drenched ennui, Wong Kar-wai (Chungking Express, In The Mood For Love). And like a Kar-wai drama, Springtime can leave you feeling wonderfully melancholy — assuming that you’re in the mood for a meticulous study of thwarted desire.
In Mandarin with English subtitles. Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), Monday, Sept. 13, at 7:30 p.m. Call 313-833-3237.
Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].