A husband (Liyan) and wife (Yuwen) are physically and emotionally estranged from one another. His friend (Zhichen) pays them an unexpected visit. Unbeknownst to the husband, the doctor turns out to be his wife's former lover, and thus: the central conflict of Spring in a Small Town has been established. If the plot sounds familiar it's perhaps unsurprising, for domestic entanglements and unfulfilled longing exist in fairly orthodox territory for the seasoned cinephile. However, Fei's distinct approach to this material is anything but conventional, and Spring's ingenuity consequently remains very much intact for contemporary audiences. Indeed, it's the director's remarkably adept exploration of his narrative's subtext that initially impaired my own response to the film.
To expand on that last comment: Spring boasts a vast reservoir of disordered feeling, much of which is internalized through the art of performance. Fei (as cinematic technician) is thereby required to supplement his characters' unsettled intrinsicalities using the film's veneer, and although his directorial touch is an expressive one it can occasionally be read as somewhat heavy-handed: intercutting a scene featuring the potential lovers with shots of their designated partners, for example; or the symbolic emphasis placed upon a pot of orchids through the use of repetition. Such judgments threaten to overwhelm the fragility of an otherwise understated drama, but therein lies the film's perplexity: although a delineation between the inferred internal domain and the lucid external one is seemingly apparent, these are interrelated oppositions whose boundaries are constantly breached both physically and figuratively (note Zhichen's entrance into the household). Thus, to misinterpret one is to miscontrue the other, as Fei is really observing the overlap of these two worlds. In its essence, Spring attempts to navigate the gradual movement of its characters away from this opaque middle-ground and towards a new-found clarity, whilst mediating over this precarious transition's necessary confrontations with a host of contentious dualities: heart vs. mind; desire vs. morality; fantasy vs. reality; rebellion vs. conformity.
Spring's conscious decision to underscore proceedings with Yuwen's poignant voiceover enriches this transitory experience for the viewer - rarely has the power of narration been utilized so effectively. Yuwen's apprehensive contemplation subsidizes the film's prevailing melancholia, but curiously lacks a fully coherent affiliation with the main narrative. In some instances, we hear her pre-empting on-screen events; in others, she comments on events that have already occurred; and all the while the audience is plunged into her subjective viewpoint which illuminates those aforementioned dualities. Although beneficial to our comprehension in that sense, the narration is detrimental in another as it obscures the filmic concept of time. [Spoiler:] Aside from the inconsistencies pertaining to its usage, it should be noted that the film's ending visually replicates (and expands upon) its beginning, clearly implying that all preceding events have been born from Yuwen's memory. Despite furthering the depth of our understanding then, Yuwen's voiceover also augments a blurring of fantasy/reality whilst concurrently reconfiguring Fei's mise-en-scène into a dense psychological playground of emotionally-charged imagery.
Accordingly, the film becomes inundated with metaphorical meaning. Previous reservations about Fei's bold intercutting or the use of orchids are somewhat redundant when viewed via the prism of Yuwen's subconscious. Meanwhile, the director's deployment of dissolves in his editing serves as an apt visualization of Yuwen's desires (note how they occur after Zhichen's introduction). Moreover, his frequent return to walls (in the garden, the house, and the all-important "city wall") reflects both the self-made and socially-prescribed barriers that contain Yuwen's passion; whilst their noticeable disrepair fortifies the authority of the emotional (their imbued status as life-governing boundaries) over the physical (their clear fallibility) that permeates the film. So exquisite is Fei's construction that even the patterning of doors and doorways plays into this exposition of interiority: the stark, rectangular designs acribed to the males form a contrast against the complex and elaborate decorations in Yuwen's quarter.
Although her presence dominates the film, Yuwen's introspection is not at the expense of others - Fei's camerawork remains committed to all of Spring's characters. The actual gaze of the film frequently articulates the infiltration of subjectivity (the narrative dictates that this is her perspective) into objectivity (the visualization is often something that she couldn't possibly have seen). Take for example, the scene in which Yuwen and Zhichen undergo their initial walk: at one point, Fei films them from behind at considerable distance as the two have a dispute expressed entirely through gestures. Yuwen would never have recalled the event from such a position, but her subsequent instincts dictate a repression of such incidents, thereby complementing Fei's own intention of veering the film away from the melodramatic. Of course, there are also the numerous instances when Yuwen isn't even in the scene, and in these cases Fei simultaneously: explores the wandering mindset of a woman seeking a resolution; questions the validity of her memorializing; and provides opportunities for the audience to sympathize with other characters. And indeed, each of these characters is sympathetic - if any of them are even remotely demonized it's Yuwen herself, who is depicted as the quiet aggressor with both Liyan and Zhichen, and seen as (self-?)isolated in scenes featuring the 'familial' collective.
Yuwen's wilful detachment from her family could arguably reflect a disconnect with a changing society, although Fei's film is never overtly allegorical. Nevertheless, the fact that the Communists rejected the film suggests that there are ideas waiting to be explored here. One could examine an tenuous link between Yuwen's frustration and the evident destruction caused by years of war (briefly alluded to during Zhichen's arrival). Additionally, using their clothing styles as a platform, we could feasibly interpret the characters of Liyan and Zhichen as representative of the (admittedly simplified) values of traditionality and modernity, with the former's illness reinforcing his derogatory role as the 'Sick Man of Asia'. Bearing this in mind, Fei's tender-hearted treatment of Liyan might well have been problematic for Leftist thinkers, and Spring's finale - which sees [Spoiler:] Yuwen conclusively opting for the traditional over the modern - amplifies this dilemma.
Could Spring therefore be conceived as an effort to engage with the issues facing a war-torn nation? Perhaps, but the film's enormous power derives primarily from its success in penetrating the intricate psyche of its lead character. Political commentary, however slight, is inevitable given the historical context that manifests itself in the film, but it's also tangential to the primary investigations of love, honour and duty. As it's these concerns that motivate Yuwen's final decision, it's on these terms that they should be judged. [Spoiler:] In reality then, her resolve to repair her own world instead of escaping to pastures anew is an optimistic one, albeit one with a self-sacrificial element to it. Lest we forget that Liyan also undergoes a significant change: initially, Yuwen describes him as having "no courage to live"; later, he himself states that "I have to get better, I have to go on living." Thus, his character's movement from opacity to clarity is decisively complete, and although Yuwen's personal transition is an ongoing process, there's no reason to believe that the future will be as desolate as the past. The fact that these changes have been (ironically) instigated by her forbidden love is perhaps an extension of the story's pure compassion for its characters, for in charting their journey the film posits love itself as a redemptive and potent force for change. If this is political conservativism, then let it be said that the world is in need of more such 'undesirables.'