A Century of Chinese Cinema runs at BFI Southbank from June-October 2014.
Do you fancy catching a film made in pre-communist China? Does that sound too old? Too strange? Too obscure? If so, think again; after all, it might just be a masterpiece.
Like most people, I’ve enjoyed going to the cinema ever since I was a kid. I can’t remember which film I first saw while growing up in what was, in the late 50s and early 60s, quite a small town in the East Midlands. (It was probably a Disney cartoon.) But I do recall attending the ABC’s Saturday morning kids’ shows; going to the then fairly numerous first- and second-run cinemas there to see Carry On comedies, swashbucklers and epics, not to mention vehicles for Cliff Richard, the Beatles and Raquel Welch. Later, in my early and mid-teens (by which time there were only two cinemas left in the much enlarged town), I’d pretend to be older than I was to avail myself of forbidden fare like Bonnie and Clyde (1967), The Graduate (1967), Women in Love (1969), Midnight Cowboy (1969) and A Clockwork Orange (1971).
But that liking for movies turned into a full-blown passion only when, as a student, I saw my first film by Ingmar Bergman. Cries and Whispers (1972) wasn’t the first ‘arthouse’ movie I’d seen, but it completely blew me away with its seriousness of purpose, honesty and elegance – an impression intensified because the only seat available to me at the sold-out screening was in the middle of the front row.
I still remember that first encounter with Bergman very vividly; not only did it change my life, making me decide there and then that my work, when I left university, would have to be somehow cinema-related, but it also made me realise that, until then, I must have been missing out on some great movies.
How so? Well, look again at the titles of the films I saw in Northampton (for that was the small town in question). All American or English. In other words, all in the English language. Cries and Whispers was the first subtitled film I’d seen in a cinema. (I’d caught a few previously in BBC2’s Friday night world cinema slot, but that was nothing like the big screen revelation.) And because it was such an epiphany, it meant that I would never feel there was something difficult or strange about watching a film with subtitles.
Subtitles didn’t mean (as some seemed to believe) that a movie was arty, obscure or pretentious; they simply meant that it was made in the language spoken wherever it was made. It would obviously make no sense for Swedes – or indeed filmmakers of any other nationalities whose first language was not the same as ours – to make a film in English. And that early realisation opened up whole new continents of cinematic achievement for me to explore.
I mention this because it’s important to remember that good films can be made anywhere; not just in English-speaking nation, or places popular for British holidays (think France and Italy) or countries known for a particular cinematic movement or genre (the ‘New German Cinema’, Japanese samurai movies, etc).
Which is just one reason why it’s well worth checking out Fei Mu’s Spring in a Small Town (1948). There are quite a few Chinese films made in the 70s or later – on the mainland or in Hong Kong or Taiwan – which have become fairly well known in the west, but those made before the 70s – even their titles – tend not to be familiar (unless you’re both a cinephile and a Sinophile), since they’ve been screened so seldom here.
Ironically, the title of Spring in a Small Town, which was made in 1948, may actually sound familiar, not because it’s been available here – it hasn’t, and until the BFI’s current release of the film, it has rarely screened in UK cinemas – but because there was a release of a very beautiful 2002 remake, entitled Springtime in a Small Town, by the dream team of director Tian Zhuangzhuang and cinematographer Mark Lee Ping Bing. It was an unusually close remake, and perhaps that’s not surprising, since Fei Mu’s film is widely regarded as the finest achievement of Chinese filmmaking before the communist victory in 1949.
Set in the aftermath of the long and devastating Sino-Japanese War, the film focuses on a marriage already troubled by apathy, ennui, illness and frustration, and which comes under further threat when a doctor friend of the husband – and, unbeknown to the latter, a former lover of the wife – arrives on an unexpected visit.
The frank treatment of adulterous desire, central to several scenes of quite surprisingly sensuality, is not the only aspect of the film that feels unusually modern. Its cool understatement in terms of narrative and performance, its psychologically illuminating use of interiors and exteriors, and its imaginative use of occasional voiceover to explore – but teasingly never pin down or delimit – the wife’s conflicting emotions: all these are combined to create a sophisticated work of sharp and subtle insights that are as relevant today as when the film was made.
The fact that Fei Mu made it in China at a time of great unrest clearly contributes a great deal to the film’s ‘meaning’, but that doesn’t prevent its observations about the individual characters, and their relationships to each other and to the world they inhabit, from being both intelligible and pertinent to us, in another time and in another place. Small town or not, spring comes to us all.