Springtime in a Small Town (Xiao cheng zhi chun) (2002)

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Released 12-Jan-2005

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Details At A Glance

General Extras
Category Drama Main Menu Audio
Featurette-Making Of-(59:52)
Theatrical Trailer-1.85:1, not 16x9 enhanced, Dolby Digital 2.0 (2:07)
Trailer-Osama, Together, Amandla!, Russian Ark, Swing, Molokai
Trailer-Standing In The Shadows Of Motown, Letters To Ali
DVD Credits
Rating Rated PG
Year Of Production 2002
Running Time 111:45 (Case: 116)
RSDL / Flipper RSDL (92:02) Cast & Crew
Start Up Menu
Region Coding 1,2,3,4,5,6 Directed By Zhuangzhuang Tian
Studio
Distributor
China Film Group
Madman Entertainment
Starring Jingfan Hu
Jun Wu
Bai Qing Xin
Xiao Keng Ye
Si Si Lu
Case Amaray-Transparent-Secure Clip
RPI $29.95 Music Li Zhao


Video Audio
Pan & Scan/Full Frame None Mandarin Dolby Digital 2.0 (224Kb/s)
Widescreen Aspect Ratio 1.85:1
16x9 Enhancement
16x9 Enhanced
Video Format 576i (PAL)
Original Aspect Ratio 1.85:1 Miscellaneous
Jacket Pictures No
Subtitles English Smoking No
Annoying Product Placement No
Action In or After Credits No

NOTE: The Profanity Filter is ON. Turn it off here.

Plot Synopsis

    By all accounts, Xiao cheng zhi chun (Spring In A Small Town), a film largely ignored upon release, is now recognised as one of the great Chinese films of all time. Indeed, some Chinese critics argue that is is the greatest Chinese film of all time. Made in 1948 and directed by Fei Mu (who was condemned by the Mao regime as a rightist and his films were proclaimed as of no interest), it is a film that most (and that includes me) have never heard of and even fewer have actually seen. This is not that film.

    Xiao cheng zhi chun (Springtime In A Small Town) comes from director Tian Zhuangzhuang, himself a bit of an outcast after his acclaimed 1992 film Lan feng zheng (The Blue Kite), and is a remake of that earlier film. Now I know that "remake" has a certain connotation with respect to quality, but this is a very rare remake indeed - it stands in its own right as a piece of cinematic genius.

    If your taste in film runs towards mindless action or overblown effects, then I can pretty well guarantee that this is not a film that you are going to enjoy at all. However, if your taste runs to something a little out of the ordinary, to human dramas reliant upon quality in the script, quality in the acting and quality in the film making, then you are going to be overjoyed by this exquisitely made film. I have in recent times been much impressed by some of the Chinese films that I have seen, most notably Wo de fu qin mu qin (The Road Home) from acclaimed director Zhang Yimou, principally because of the sheer quality they exude, especially in the cinematography. This is one of those films.

    Set in a small South China town after the Japanese withdrawal at the end of World War Two and before the Communist Revolution in 1948, this gorgeously crafted drama may seem to take a while to go nowhere, but if that is your reaction to the film then I feel very sorry for you. Without the need for copious dialogue and without the need for a blatant approach to the subject, this tells the story of Liyan Dai, his wife Yuwen and a guest, Zhichen Zhang. Liyan Dai (Wu Jun) is the owner of a property that has suffered during the war. Without the means to repair the property, Liyan finds life getting tougher all the time as his health fails and his relationship with his wife of eight years (by way of arranged marriage), Yuwen (Hu Jing Fan), is deteriorating. Life has become something of a drudge. Yuwen does not share her husband's bed any more and relieves the boredom in which she finds herself living by taking solitary walks in the country around the town and by embroidering. The only real life in the house is Liyan's young sister Xiu (Lu Si Si), a precocious sixteen year old approaching the time when her life will be changed forever. Into this dull, mainly lifeless existence comes a surprise visitor in the comparatively worldly doctor Zhichen Zhang (Xin Bai Qing), an old friend Liyan has not seen in ten years.

    Unbeknownst to Liyan, Yuwen and Zhichen know each other very well - former neighbours, Zhichen was Yuwen's great love when she was sixteen and his return only serves to remind Yuwen that despite her marriage, those long buried feelings burn as strong as ever. It turns out that Zhichen has not forgotten her either and that provides the core of the film - the intricate relationships of the four main characters as Yuwen comes to realise how much of a sham her marriage is, how much she still feels for Zhichen and how infatuated Xiu becomes with Zhichen herself. The breath of fresh air that Zhichen brings to the home, illustrated by the long walks that Yuwen now makes not alone but with the household, imbibes Liyan with a new spirit of optimism that is dashed by the realisation of how his wife feels about Zhichen. His descent into helplessness seems unending and we take that journey with him.

    Of course, we also know that as much as this current journey is a heartbreaker, it is nothing compared to what the characters would suffer as landowners in the coming Communist Revolution...

    There is not much to the story really, but the film ends up being a tour de force in terms of filmmaking. It all starts with some exquisite attention to detail in the setting of the film. Nearly everything takes place within the house, with only the "escape" moments taking us into the countryside. Thus the setting contributes much to the feeling of the film and the characters. In the house, you have a virtual guide to use of set and lighting in the way the film was shot. Framing is exquisite indeed, and if it looks similar to say Wong Kar Wai's Fa yeung nin wa (In The Mood For Love) there is good reason - the films share the cinematographic talents of Li Ping Bin. This really is one of the very best pieces of cinematography that I have seen and the house itself very much becomes a character in the film. The extraordinarily simple yet extremely effective lighting just adds layers of mood to the film that no amount of the "gloss" you see in mainstream American films could possibly do. Any aspiring filmmaker should be checking out this film simply to see how less is by no means a bad way of going, as it can result in so much more. Frenetic pacing? Who needs it? Flashy editing? Who needs it? Just watch the simplicity of a master at work and see how much more effective it can be.

    None of which would mean squat of course if the actors cannot do their job. No such problems here! Quiet understatement is the general norm here, other than the necessary exuberance of the young lady. The script often falls back to the effectiveness of silence and so the nuances are what makes the film really work. A simple look, a little sigh - small touches that without any dialogue convey more meaning than you would find in any dozen films from Hollywood. The cast is small but extremely effective, with all contributing to proceedings at a very high level of excellence. Again, deceptively simple stuff but so very, very effective. This is the sort of serious quality in acting that the overpaid hacks in Hollywood could not achieve if they spent their entire careers practicing for just a single performance.

   It is when you see this sort of quality filmmaking that you really do realise that the centre of the filmmaking universe is no longer Hollywood - if it has ever been. Serious quality film is being made all over the globe but if any one region is starting to dominate proceedings, then it is Asia and especially East Asia. I had never heard of the original film and certainly knew little about this remake when I stuck my hand up to review it. This is simply another of those discoveries that you make when you consciously decide to check out film from other parts of the globe. I am sure glad I did in this case. One of the most gorgeous films I have seen, wonderfully crafted in every way and a delight sure to reward those who have the desire to investigate film away from the mainstream.

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Transfer Quality

Video

    Even though the opening credits might seem a little cropped, the transfer is presented in the original theatrical ratio of 1.85:1. It is 16x9 enhanced.

    There really is sod all to quibble about with this rather lovely transfer. It should be noted that it is at times a little soft, with just a hint of light grain at times, but this is almost certainly an artistic choice as it suits the film so well. A lot of the film is shot at night in the tight confines of rooms in the house. This would ordinarily be a recipe for disaster as far as shadow detail is concerned, but here it is just so well handled that you really do understand that this is the way the film has to look. Whilst those after super sharp transfers will probably complain, what we have here is almost certainly exactly what the director intended and I for one applaud the general excellence of the transfer.

    As you will discover from the Making Of documentary in the extras package, there was a conscious decision made with respect of the colours of the film in order to emphasise the Chinese sensibilities as far as colour go, which are not very close to Western ideas. What we have here is a predominantly muted palette with emphasis on the earthier colours with only the occasional splash of bright, vibrant colours. This of course accords with the setting of the film. Whilst it certainly is not a vibrant transfer by any means, you would have to go through a lot of films to find as effective a palette of colours as you find here. Tones are deep and even in general and raise absolutely no complaint whatsoever. Very nice stuff indeed.

    There are no significant MPEG artefacts in the transfer, although some minor loss in resolution in one or two pan shots is noted, along with some slight pixelization in the background around the 9:20 mark. None of this is serious and may well be unnoticeable on some setups. There is little evidence of film-to-video artefacting in the transfer with only minor aliasing here and there - the most notable example being in the tree at 1:05. There is a fair sprinkling of film artefacts throughout the film, mainly of the small white speck variety and whilst noticeable, don't really intrude too much into the film.

    This is an RSDL formatted DVD with the layer change coming at 92:02. Whilst it is a little obvious, it really does not disrupt the flow of the film too much.

    There is just the one subtitle option on the disc, being selectable English efforts. Since my knowledge of Mandarin extends only to being able to swear enough to get me into deep trouble, I obviously cannot attest to their accuracy. They do, however, seem to convey the feeling of the dialogue quite well, and are rather easy to read, being in a largish font, yellow in colour.

Video Ratings Summary
Sharpness
Shadow Detail
Colour
Grain/Pixelization
Film-To-Video Artefacts
Film Artefacts
Overall

Audio

    There is just the one soundtrack on the DVD, a Mandarin Dolby Digital 2.0 soundtrack.

    The dialogue comes up rather too well in the transfer, so whilst it is easy to understand (more so if you understand Mandarin) it does come over as slightly over bright and slightly unnatural at times. There appears to be some marginal audio sync issues here and there, especially early on in the film, but I would suggest that this may be inherent in the source material owing to some less than stellar ADR work, as well as the fact that Mandarin is at times a more guttural language.

    The original score comes from Zhao Li and like nearly every aspect of the film is quietly understated but extremely effective. With the long periods of silence being well used in the film, the score really comes to the fore to flesh out the mood enormously. Very effective.

    No doubt the six channel brigade will bemoan the lack of a six channel soundtrack but the film simply does not need it. With silence and modest dialogue being the effective tools of the film, there is little scope to flesh out the sound so why do it? It was a good choice by Madman Entertainment to go with a well engineered two channel soundtrack in my view. There really is nothing wrong with what they have given us here, with the soundtrack having a lovely clean open sound.

Audio Ratings Summary
Dialogue
Audio Sync
Clicks/Pops/Dropouts
Surround Channel Use
Subwoofer
Overall

Extras

    Given that this is a rental-only release, quite a decent package is included. This would suggest of course that the eventual sell-through release will be the very same package.

Menu

    Nicely done with some modest audio enhancement.

Featurette - Making Of (59:52)

    Quite a surprise to see this on the DVD and frankly worthwhile watching too. With interview material with the main cast and crew, most notably the director, this is quite an interesting insight into the film. Aside from film excerpts (interestingly with quite different subtitles to those in the feature itself) there are also plenty of behind the scenes shots. It is presented in a Full Frame format (presumably widescreen television is still not a common thing in China), so it is obviously not 16x9 enhanced. The sound is respectable enough Dolby Digital 2.0. Quite informative stuff. The English subtitles are burned into the video stream so cannot be turned off, which is a slight bummer for those who can speak Mandarin. They are rather quickly presented at times so that for us poor non-Mandarin speakers we at times don't get the time to read them fully.

Theatrical Trailer (2:07)

    A fairly typical effort, noted for the poorer quality of the transfer (it is not 16x9 enhanced even though in an aspect ratio of 1.85:1) and some rather hissy sound.

Trailers (8)

    The obligatory Madman Propaganda, with the trailers being for Osama (1:50, 1.85:1, not 16x9 enhanced, Dolby Digital 2.0 sound), Together (1:55, 1.85:1, not 16x9 enhanced, Dolby Digital 2.0 sound), Amandla! (1:42, 1.85:1, not 16x9 enhanced, Dolby Digital 2.0 surround sound), Russian Ark (2:12, 1.85:1, not 16x9 enhanced, slightly hissy Dolby Digital 2.0 sound), Standing In The Shadows Of Motown (2:08, 1.85:1, 16x9 enhanced, Dolby Digital 2.0 surround sound), Swing (1:33, 1.66:1, not 16x9 enhanced, Dolby Digital 2.0 surround sound), Molokai (1:29, 1.85:1, not 16x9 enhanced, Dolby Digital 2.0 surround sound) and Letters To Ali (1:53, 2.35:1, not 16x9 enhanced, Dolby Digital 2.0 sound). Nothing remarkable about them, other than to serve to remind that quality film is to found from all over the globe.

DVD Credits

R4 vs R1

NOTE: To view non-R4 releases, your equipment needs to be multi-zone compatible and usually also NTSC compatible.

    The Region 1 DVD of the film hit the streets on 23rd November, and so we finally have some reviews for comparative purposes. It would appear that the Region 1 release gains a radio interview with the director, but for some variances in the trailers is otherwise similar to the Region 4 release. There is a Region 2 (United Kingdom) release from Artificial Eye that from the sole review located seems to be very similar in quality to the Region 4 release, but is of course available now as a sell-through DVD. The main difference between the two releases is that the Region 4 has the obligatory Madman Propaganda trailers whilst the Region 2 release has a filmography and biography for the director as well as production notes that apparently focus on the the original 1948 film. Accordingly there is not a great deal separating the two releases.

    There is a rather expensive Region 2 (Japanese) DVD available that is probably ignorable not only on price grounds but also for the fact that it appears to only have Japanese subtitles - not much use to those of us who cannot speak Mandarin and cannot read Japanese. However, it would appear that it has a Dolby Digital 5.1 Mandarin soundtrack if that is important to you and you can live with the subtitle (non)selection. Information about extras is sketchy I am afraid. I have not been able to track down any other DVD releases of the film, noting that from China I could only find a VCD release, but would presume that there would surely have to be some legal Asian DVD releases. So all in all, it boils down to either buying from Region 2 or renting the Region 4.

Summary

    Whilst Xiao cheng zhi chun (Springtime In A Small Town) is perhaps not the sort of film that you would watch for mindless entertainment after a crappy day at the office, it certainly is the sort of film that handsomely rewards the time you invest in watching it. With some of the best cinematography and acting that I have seen for a long time, this is certainly one of those gems that occasionally turn up in the review pile. I cannot recommend this exquisite piece of filmmaking too highly, and Madman entertainment have given us a very good DVD package.

    The only thing I don't understand is why this is a rental-only release. I would have thought the rental market for this sort of film is fairly limited. One can only presume the gurus know better than I.

Ratings (out of 5)

Video
Audio
Extras
Plot
Overall

© Ian Morris (Biological imperfection run amok)
Thursday, October 14, 2004
Review Equipment
DVDDenon DVD-1600, using RGB output
DisplayLoewe Aconda 9381ZW. Calibrated with Video Essentials. This display device is 16x9 capable.
Audio DecoderBuilt in to amplifier/receiver. Calibrated with Video Essentials.
AmplificationYamaha RXV-795
SpeakersEnergy Speakers: centre EXLC; left and right C-2; rears EXLR; and subwoofer ES-12XL

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