Sunday, December 8, 2013

Yang Fudong's Cinematic Influences

PFA stands for Pacific Film Archive.  I frequently see the organization referred to as BAM/PFA with BAM standing for Berkeley Art Museum.  I've never been to BAM.  I need to get over there before it moves.  I can't recall if I've mentioned it on this blog but the construction on the new BAM/PFA building is visibly progressing.  I walk past the construction site whenever I go to PFA.  The new BAM/PFA site will be one block from the Downtown Berkeley BART on Centre St.  It's scheduled to open in Spring 2016.

I thought about that because for the first time I can remember BAM and PFA had a companion exhibits.  BAM has an art exhibit by Yang Fudong titled Yang Fudong: Estranged Paradise, Works 1993–2013 which ends at 5 PM today.  PFA had a film series titled Yang Fudong's Cinematic Influences which screened six films between August 22 and October 6.  I saw one film in the series.

Spring in a Small Town starring Wei Wei, Shi Yu & Li Wei; directed by Fei Mu; Mandarin with subtitles; (1948)

Voted Best Chinese Film of All Time in a poll of Chinese critics and cited as an influence by Kar Wai Wong.  I went to the screening of Spring in a Small Town by high expectations.  Indeed, the film plot seems to have been the basis for many Wong films.

Dai Liyan (Shi Yu) is the head of a once prosperous family.  The war has taken his health and much like the partially ruined compound of his estate, he is a functioning but broken man.  His health laid low by tuberculosis; his self-respect following suit.  His wife, Zhou Yuwen (Wei Wei) senses this but with little to distract her and a reputation to uphold, she stays in her loveless marriage.  Is it loveless because he is physical incapable or because they have grown apart?  The answer is yes.

Dai's childhood friend Zhang Zhichen (Li Wei) arrives for a visit.  Ostensibly staying on to treat his friend's illness, Zhang was also Zhou's first love which Dai is unaware of.  Quickly, Zhou's restlessness and frustrations find an potential outlet with Zhang but both are unwilling to cuckold Dai.  This sexual tension continues for the second half of the film as Dai becomes increasingly aware of the odd behavior of his wife and best friend.

Spring in a Small Town is an amazing film.  Made three years after the end of WWII, the damaged town is a symbol for the scars that were still fresh from the war.  Director Fei Mu adds visual flourishes that would make John Alton proud.  Many scenes are bathed in shadows.  Wei Wei has a remote beauty to her which the camera displays to great effect.  As I heard mentioned after the screening, Wei Wei was like the Chinese Ava Gardner.

There is a wonderful scene where Dai's younger sister turns sixteen.  Having her eyes on Zhang, she and her brother become aware of the full extent of the attraction between Zhang & Zhou as everyone's inhibitions are loosened by the alcohol.  Seemingly encouraging his wife, Dai's humiliation is near complete while the teenager is too naive to understand the full extent of the evening's events.

Like my favorite Kar Wai Wong's films, Spring in a Small Town was moody, claustrophobic and melancholy.  The experience of watching the film was more than the sum of the on-screen parts.  The inner conflict within the three main protagonists is hinted but still open to interpretation by the audience.

Spring in a Small Town was remade in 2002 as Springtime in a Small Town (directed by Zhuangzhuang Tian).  Well received by critics, I would like to see it for comparison purposes.

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