The Dianying Diaries, part 2

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) – Springtime in a Small Town (2002)

As I mentioned last time around, the 1948 Chinese classic film with this title was remade in 2002. Though the official English titles are different, in Chinese they are identical. This time around, the director was Tian Zhuangzhuang (田壮壮 ) of the so-called Fifth Generation of Chinese filmmakers, along with Zhang Yimou (张艺谋) and Chen Kaige (陈凯歌 ). Tian’s career has been very erratic, with a smaller number of films to his credits than others of his generation. This is due in great part to the aftermath of his 1993 film 蓝风筝 (The Blue Kite), which was banned in his homeland and earned him a forced hiatus for a few years. Even after his blacklisting was over, he did not make another film until this one nearly ten years later.
On the surface, this film is a marked departure from Tian’s tendency to push the boundaries of what his government would accept – it’s a simple story of a love triangle with no significant political or historical content. The plot remains unchanged from the original, so you can read my previous entry to see what it’s about. There is perhaps a slight bit of subversion in the choice to remake a neglected classic, first since that film was somewhat out of favor (though not banned). And by retreating into the past, to a movie that was made before the Revolution, maybe he was making a statement about how the authorities’ restrictions served to render Chinese artists impotent. But we should not read too much into these possibilities.

If I had seen this film on its own, and not shortly after watching the original, I might very well have felt differently about it. To be honest, this modern film suffers from the comparison in most respects. Although it garnered positive reviews both in China and abroad, I find it pales next to Fei Mu’s achievement.

To illustrate why I feel this way, let me go through some of the things I noted about the original, comparing the differences.
(The original Yuwen meets the new Yuwen)
First of all Yuwen’s narration is gone. In the DVD extras, Tian explains that her narration reduced the other characters’ importance, and he wanted to tell the story in a more balanced way, giving equal weight to Liyan and Zhicheng. I would call this change neutral.

Second, the character of Little Sister is significantly altered. Far from being the perceptive young woman she was in the original, she is giggly and immature. I’ve considered that maybe it’s just the choice of the young actress for the part, but it’s more than that. Frankly, the character of Little Sister in the original was a real joy; even when she wasn’t speaking you could see from her attitude that she understood what was going on maybe better than anyone else in the story. Her reduction to a shallow teenager is quite a loss for the film.
Third, the dialog is much more naturalistic, lacking the stagy quality I noted in the original. I’d have to call this one in Tian’s favor. While the acting style of the original didn’t really bother me, by comparison this seems more true-to-life. In addition, there’s a lot more talking in this version – some scenes that were nearly silent before now have dialog.

Fourth, Yuwen mostly lacks the forthright flirtatious manner she sometimes exhibited in the original. I found it decidedly odd that a 21st Century film would actually be less daring than its 1948 source. Yuwen is on the whole less energetic, independent and engaging in this go-round.

(I couldn't find this part with subtitles. The rowboat scene is about five minutes in.)
Fifth, while there are still scenes with singing, it is no longer Chinese folk songs that are sung. In the wonderful rowing scene of the original, they sing an ode to springtime, that, while it’s sung in Chinese, is set to the tune of “The Blue Danube.” And when Zhicheng gets drunk at Little Sister’s birthday party, he sings a piece from an Italian opera.

And finally, this film is in color. The cinematography is really lovely, but does lack the sense of desolation that the black and white gave us. As before, the lighting is often dim, though the candlelight now provides a warm glow rather than feeble flickering.

Another difference that was quite jarring was this: in the original, we never so much as saw another human being aside from the five principles. Now, for no reason I can make out, there is a single scene that breaks out of that confinement. Zhicheng goes to Little Sister’s school and teaches her classmates how to dance a waltz (again, note the favoring of a foreign influence over Chinese tradition).

To some extent, the rowing scene sums up the changes Tian made to Fei’s movie. The camera angle is much wider, giving us a detached, less engaged feeling; the characters do not exchange any meaningful glances, giving little hint what they’re feeling; and a Chinese folk song is replaced with a bastardized version of a European classical tune.

So while I would not say Tian’s film is a classic of Chinese cinema, it is far from a bad film, and shows lots of craft in the making. Tian obviously knows what he is doing, and what I see as shortcomings here are for the most part deliberate choices, not failures in movie-making skill. I wouldn’t want to discourage anyone from watching this picture, but would definitely urge everyone to seek out the original.

Wikipedia entry
IMDB entry
Netflix entry

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