Li Tianji’s short story SPRINGTIME IN A SMALL TOWN was first adapted for the screen by director Fei Mu in 1948. The film was produced by the Wenhua Film Company in Shanghai, one of the two important production companies formed by left-leaning filmmakers in the city to spearhead a post-war revival in Chinese cinema. Wenhua specialised in making sophisticated comedies and social dramas and brought in such talents as the novelist Eileen Chang, the playwright Cao Yu and the brilliant stage actor Shi Hui. But Fei Mu’s film (nowadays generally known as SPRING IN A SMALL TOWN) stood apart from other Wenhua productions in both tone and form. Fei created a chamber drama to express his ambivalent feelings about the present and his forebodings about China’s future. Fei made use of some daring innovations in film language, and drew exceptional performances from Li Wei as the visitor Zhang Zhichen and from the truly remarkable Wei Wei as the frustrated wife Yu Wen.

For more than three decades, Fei Mu’s SPRING IN A SMALL TOWN was a forgotten film. Fei Mu moved to Hong Kong soon after making it, and died there in 1951. He was later reviled as a “rightist” by the apparatchiks who wrote the official history of Chinese film for the Communist Party, and none of his films was deemed important.

This picture began to change only in the early 1980s, when the China Film Archive re-opened (like other institutions, it had been closed down during the Cultural Revolution) and made a new print from the original negative of SPRING IN A SMALL TOWN. The film quickly found a new and admiring audience. Many Chinese critics – especially in Hong Kong and Taiwan – consider it the greatest Chinese film ever made.

Fei Mu has since been honoured with a retrospective at the Hong Kong International Film Festival. Stanley Kwan’s film ACTRESS (aka CENTRE STAGE, 1991), a bio-pic about the 1930s star Ruan Lingyu, features Fei Mu as a character and goes out of its way to rehabilitate his reputation as a man and as an artist. And critic Wong Ain-Ling has edited a comprehensive (Chinese-language) study of Fei Mu’s life and work, published in Hong Kong.

Tian Zhuangzhuang has not directed a film since THE BLUE KITE, shot in 1991 and completed in 1992. This remake of Fei Mu’s classic marks his return to active service as a director. During production, the project was visited by the only surviving member of Fei Mu’s cast: Wei Wei, the original Yuwen. Tian now presents his film as a homage to Fei Mu and the other great pioneers who gave China its own cinema.

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