The Dianying Diaries, part 1

Part of a series dealing with Chinese cinema. 电影 (diànyǐng) is the Chinese word for movie, the two characters literally meaning “electric” and “shadow.”

小城之春 (xiǎochéng zhī chūn) – Spring in a Small Town (1948)

This film was made by director Fei Mu (费穆 ) just before the Revolution, so you can’t expect any propagandistic content. As you might recall, Japan occupied much of China starting in 1937 (the Second Sino-Japanese War), and weren’t finally expelled until 1945. This story is set in about 1946 in the aftermath of the war, and though it gets only fleeting mention, it is silently present in the ruined setting.
In a small town that is never named (it was filmed in Wuzhen (乌镇) in Zhejiang (浙江) province) but is somewhere not too far from Shanghai , the Dai family has its home. Their large compound, with multiple courtyards and many rooms in adjoining buildings, was heavily damaged by Japanese mortar fire, and in any case only four people now live there.
Dai Liyan (戴礼言, played by 石羽 Shi Yu), though only about 30, is the family patriarch. He has been in ill health for six years – it is suspected that his respiratory problem may be tuberculosis.
The second resident is his wife of eight years, Zhou Yuwen (周玉纹, played by 韦伟 Wei Wei). (Remember, in Chinese culture, women do not take their husband’s family name.) She is pretty but withdrawn, having lived in separate rooms from her husband since early in his illness. She takes care of him dutifully, but there is no affection apparent.
Liyan’s younger sister Dai Xiu (戴秀, played by 张鸿眉 Zhang Hongmei) is the third resident. She is 15, a very bright and perceptive girl, usually referred to as Little Sister (妹妹).
Finally there is Lao Huang (老黄 literally “Old Huang” – a typical way to refer to an older man, and not at all disrespectful, played by 崔超明 Cui Chaoming), the family’s loyal servant, who has been there longer than any of the others.
Over the years they’ve developed a routine. Every morning Yuwen rises and takes a basket into town to get groceries and her husband’s medicine and walks along the old city wall on the way home; Liyan gets up and sits in the garden, sometimes attempting repairs or tending plants; Little Sister gets up and walks to school, sometimes coming home for lunch, sometimes not until after school; Lao Huang takes care of things around the house. Presumably they have dinner together, though we don’t see that directly.
Shortly after the movie starts, their routine is interrupted by the arrival of Zhang Zhichen (章志忱, played by 李纬 Li Wei), a childhood friend of Liyan. Liyan hasn’t seen him since Zhichen left town to attend medical school in Shanghai. Through circumstances that aren’t explained, Liyan is unaware that Zhichen was Yuwen’s boyfriend when she was 16, before she met Liyan, and Zhichen is unaware that his former girlfriend married his old friend. These five characters are the only people seen in the entire film.
Zhichen’s arrival (he stays for several weeks) serves to highlight the emptiness of Yuwen’s marriage, and though this side of the love triangle is never consummated (this shouldn’t be a spoiler when you consider where and when it was made), tensions rise, and we wonder if Yuwen will leave her husband to be with her true love, or perhaps even do something more serious.

That’s enough of the plot. There are a few things to note about how the story is told.
Yuwen provides voice-over narration, mostly giving us background, sometimes revealing her thoughts, and occasionally providing information she really shouldn’t know according to the events seen on screen. Sometimes this is a little jarring, especially when the voice-over is interspersed with conversation.
Second is that Little Sister is quick to pick up on what’s going on. She can tell there is something between Yuwen and Zhichen, feels sorry for Yuwen’s unhappy situation, and is not blindly supportive of her brother; she’s slightly flirtatious toward Zhicheng.
Third, the dialog is a little stiff and stagy, rather like a play translated to the screen, though to my knowledge the screenplay was based on a short story, and there never was a play. I attribute this mainly to the era in which it was made. I understood enough of the dialog to pick this up, and I know others who don’t understand Chinese at all who have come to the same conclusion.
Fourth, in her scenes with Zhicheng, Yuwen is often quite playful, even a little flirtatious. There’s one scene where she circles her old boyfriend playing with a scarf, covering the lower part of her face like a veil while her eyes sparkle mischievously.

Fifth, there are several scenes with singing, usually Little Sister singing a Chinese folk song, but very little in the way of incidental music. There is a really interesting scene where the three principles take a boat out onto the river with Little Sister and they sing 在那遥远的地方 (zài nà yáoyuǎn de dìfang "In That Distant Place") together.
And finally, it is in black and white, with the ruined house seeming all the more desolate for the lack of color. Many scenes are lit by the dim overhead lightbulbs that make up the majority of the old house’s lighting, and at the times when the electricity goes out, there are only candles and lamps.

I mention some of these things for future comparison with the 2002 remaking of this story, which I’ll talk about in a forthcoming post.

The lack of political content led to the disfavor of the Communist government, which had the policy that art should further Party ideals. Since it didn’t contain any uplifting messages of the people overcoming oppression, it had no place in the country’s cultural mixture, seen as “Rightist” maybe more by default than by anything actually in it. So while it was never outright banned, it was basically ignored for decades, in mainland China at least. It also didn’t help that director Fei Mu fled to Hong Kong after the Revolution. Luckily copies have survived, though the DVD transfer I watched had some flaws, places where the picture or sound had problems. Others of Fei Mu’s early work have not been so lucky.
As I mentioned, the acting is maybe a little stiff by modern standards, and reminded me somewhat of American movies of the thirties. But I would not say that this film was in any way behind the the times for its era. The camera work, framing, and lighting are all quite good.

All in all, it is a fine film, and worthy of a place among the world’s classics of cinema. In 2005, the Hong Kong Film Critics Association voted it the greatest Chinese film of all time, topping a list of 100 movies weighted heavily towards the HK industry.

Wikipedia entry
IMDb entry
Netflix entry


  1. Great post, judging by the stills you have a better copy of DVD than mine:) Music worked really well in this film, much better than most of the hollywood musicals I've seen.

    Looking forward to see your takes on Edward Yang's A Brighter Summer Day and Yi Yi.

    by the way, I just posted a film music playlist on my blog:


  2. To me this song is the hightlight of the film:


    Can you read the lyrics? It's a Kazakh folk song.

  3. I spent several hours scouring the web to find these stills - none of them are my own captures.


    Thanks for the link to the other song. Maybe I need a whole post about the songs, since I've become very interested in them.