Home > Greatest Scores of the Twentieth Century, Reviews > SPRING IN A SMALL TOWN – Huang Yijun

SPRING IN A SMALL TOWN – Huang Yijun

October 17, 2022 Leave a comment Go to comments

GREATEST SCORES OF THE TWENTIETH CENTURY

Original Review by Craig Lysy

In 1947 renowned playwright and director Wu Zuguang commissioned screenwriter Li Tianji to write a screenplay to be titled “Spring in a Small Town”. Upon completion, the screenplay was presented to two production companies, Gutoi and Datong, which both declined. A third attempt with the Wen Hua Production Company was successful, and the film went into production with a very small budget as the company was near bankruptcy. Fei Mu was tasked with directing and made changes in the script to reduce the number of characters as budgetary constraints were onerous. A fine cast was assembled, which included Wei Wei as the heroine Zhōu Yùwén, Yu Shi as Yùwén’s husband Dài Lǐyán, Lei Wei as Dai Lǐyán’s childhood friend and Yùwén’s former lover Zhāng Zhìchén, Cui Chaoming as Dai and Yùwén’s loyal servant Lǎo Huáng, and Zhang Hongmei as Dai Lǐyán’s young sister Dài Xiù.

The story is set in 1945 during the aftermath of the Japanese surrender in WWII and the onset of the Chinese civil war between the Nationalists and Communists. China after fourteen years of war lays impoverished and devastated with its people in despair. Ancient Chinese poetry was utilized as the theme of the story, with the imagery of ruined walls serving as the backdrop. The ruined wall offers a metaphor for the physical and psychological trauma for a people full of despair as they face an uncertain future. Yùwén dutifully lives in a loveless marriage to her husband Lǐyán, who is physically and psychologically ill, unable to accept the loss of his family’s prestige and wealth. The household is upended when Zhìchén, a physician and former lover of Yùwén visits and their romantic feelings for each other are rekindled. Lǐyán eventually tells Yùwén she would be better off with Zhìchén and attempts suicide. The attempt fails and Zhìchén sadly departs, leaving Lǐyán and Yùwén alone atop the ruined wall gazing at the horizon. The victorious Communist banned the film as reactionary for its sentimentality and deviation from its policy of socialist realism in the arts. The film was resurrected in the 2005 when the Hong Kong Film Awards voted it as “The best Chinese film ever made”.

Director Fei Mu enjoyed his collaboration with composer Huang Yijun when making his film Confucius in 1940, and was pleased to offer him the scoring assignment. Huang, who was born in 1915, was one of China’s pre-eminent orchestral composers of the time, having been associated with the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra since 1938. He later became the SSO’s principal conductor, during which time be recorded a number of film scores and conducted symphonies in Finland and the USSR, but he was later removed from his position after Mao’s Cultural Revolution in 1966. Huang appreciated that Fei’s vision drew inspiration from Du Fu’s iconic poem, weaving the imagery of ruined walls, which served as an essential and unifying backdrop for the film’s narrative;

“The nation shattered, mountains and river remain. City in spring, grass, and trees burgeoning. Feeling the times, blossoms draw tears. Hating separation, birds alarm the heart. Beacon fires three months in succession, a letter from home worth ten thousand in gold. White hairs, fewer for the scratching, soon too few to hold a hairpin up”.

Huang understood that this was an intimate film with only five characters, which explores a loveless marriage sustained by the inertia of duty, which unravels when Yùwén’s former lover Zhìchén returns and rekindles their romance. His music would have to speak to the pathos of despair juxtaposed to Spring’s blossoming of love. Upon viewing the film Huang decided to embrace minimalism, with extensive use of silence, which would allow actor dialogue to drive the intimate drama. Indeed, only seven scenes in the film are scored. For three of the scenes Huang interpolates traditional Chinese ballads, which speak to the emotional dynamics being felt on the screen. “Lovely Little Rose” offers an allegory in that it speaks to the repressed, unspoken and potent romantic yearnings still felt by former lovers Yùwén and Zhìchén. “That Faraway Place” is a song of longing and we see in the film that as Xiù and Lǐyán, who are in front rowing sing it, Yùwén and Zhìchén who are in the back, keep exchanging longing glances. For the remaining four cues, the Main Titles and Finale open and close the film, while the remaining two cues speak to the emotional dynamics between Yùwén and Zhìchén, who are unable to reconcile the impediments of their circumstances with their ardent love for each other.

00:00 “Main Titles” opens with “A Wen Hwa Film Company Production”, which displays over a verdant countryside, and is supported by fanfare maestoso, which empowers a formal musical narrative. At 0:13 the film title displays and the roll of the opening credits commences. Huang creates an idyllic ambiance with a pastorale tranquilla, which evolves into a promenade as we see Zhōu Yùwén walking atop the town wall. Confident horns join as we see the film’s final scene of Dài Xiù, Dai Lǐyán and Zhāng Zhìchén walking along a country road. We enter the film proper with Yùwén walking alone atop the city wall with narration using her mind’s thoughts about the monotony of her life. In two unscored scenes we see Lǐyán a truly pitiful man who has given up on living and is refusing to take his medicine. He frets at his inadequacy and is disgusted that Yùwén is living such an unfulfilling life. He suffers from melancholia and shame as the family fortunes under his watch, have fallen into ruin due to the war. Later that day Lǐyán’s boyhood friend Zhāng Zhìchén comes to visit and his spirits pick up. He invites him for dinner and to stay a few days.

In an unscored scene Yùwén is unsettled when she discovers that her house guest is Zhìchén, her former lover. There is sexual tension with the meeting, but it diffuses as she prepares dinner and Xiù sings the traditional romantic ballad “Lovely Little Rose”. The song choice is allegorical in that it speaks to the subterranean feelings, and what is unspoken between Yùwén and Zhìchén.

Zhìchén retires for the evening with Huáng bringing a gift of orchids from Yùwén. Later Yùwén comes to visit him and we see that despite ten years of separation, they still have intense feelings for each other. She fuses over him, and fetches additional sheets and a blanket. They talk about Lǐyán’s health, and Zhìchén informs her that he will recover, but suffers from a weak heart. She lights a candle, a metaphor for wanting to rekindle their romance, as she wastes away in an unfulfilling and loveless marriage. He insists she sit down and spend some time with him. The city cuts power at midnight, leaving just the candlelight. She begins to sob, he comes to her, but she puts him off and departs for the night.

The next day in unscored scenes Xiù brings Zhìchén a bonsai gift she made, for which he is thankful. She frets that while her brother is physically ill, she also believes he in mentally ill – angry at life and depressed. Zhìchén then sets off with his stethoscope to perform an examination of Lǐyán as Yùwén and Xiù look on. Zhìchén encourages taking in more sun and some walking exercise. Later, the four goes for a walk atop the city wall, with Yùwén walking alone behind the other three. They stop, Yùwén catches up, and Zhìchén tenderly grasps her hand and smiles. They then go rowing on the river, which is supported by Xiù and Lǐyán singing another song, 33:30 “That Faraway Place”. It is a song of longing and in the film as Xiù and Lǐyán, who are in front rowing sing it, Yùwén and Zhìchén who are in the back, keep exchanging glances. The confluence of song, acting and cinematography is sublime.

In subsequent unscored scenes, on the morning of the third day of his visit, Zhìchén asks Yùwén to make up an excuse so they can walk together to talk things over. They walk to the city wall, and her mind relates how hopeless she feels atop this broken-down and hollowed out old city wall. He is amorous, holds her arm, and inquires if he asked her to come away with him, would she? She walks away in silence, he catches up, again grasps her arm, and yet she does not respond to his overture. Silence reigns, with the only sound supporting being a gentle breeze. As they walk along a country road, she eventually places her arm within his, yet the gesture is fleeting, as she then runs away from him. Back at the house, Lǐyán frets to Zhìchén after an examination saying Yùwén is the perfect, dutiful wife for him, yet he realizes she never smiles anymore and often cries alone in her room, which makes him sad. He makes Zhìchén very uncomfortable when he states that Yùwén would have been better off if she had married him.

Yùwén relates to Zhìchén that when Lǐyán married her, she forced herself to like him, but as he became sick and angry, she would invariably think of him. She relates that although she serves Lǐyán dutifully, and faithfully, her heart belongs to him. She sobs on his shoulder and asks, what are they to do. He answers if he should leave, and she adds if Lǐyán should die. Her mind relating regret and shock at what she just said. The flirtatious Xiù wants to go off and have fun with Zhìchén, but he informs Lǐyán that after nine days it is time for him to leave. Lǐyán refuses and coaxes him to join his younger sister, which he does. Atop the city wall she dances for him and asks him to help her get into high school in Shanghai so she can pursue her dreams. Back at the house Zhìchén again asks Yùwén to talk about their feelings, and she agrees to meet him tonight. Later she visits him, and turns off the lights. He turns them back on and instructs her to never visit him behind Lǐyán’s back. She suggests that he has feelings for Xiù, which he denies, and agrees to not take her out again. She departs, and smiles saying that she was just teasing him.

Later after giving Lǐyán his medicine, he asks her to sit down on his bed to talk. He asks her what she thinks of Zhìchén, and she deflects, saying if he is your friend, then he is a good man. He informs her of his desire for Zhìchén to wed Xiù in two years when she is eighteen and asks her to talk it over with Xiù. She convinces him that Xiù is too young and he drops the matter, but startles her by asking her to spend the night with him. Her removal of his hand from her lap and silent departure is devastating to Lǐyán. In the morning she visits Zhìchén and asks him to come up with an excuse to meet her at the city wall. When he asks why, she deflects and departs to shop for groceries. 55:39 “The Rendezvous” reveals Yùwén and Zhìchén walking atop the city wall, approaching each other from different directions. She walks past him, he turns and follows, and then she stops, smiles, places both hands on his shoulder. Huang offers a promenade pastorale tinged with auras of sadness. Yùwén discloses that Lǐyán has asked her to be a matchmaker for him and his sister Xiù. Zhìchén will have no part of it, as she at sixteen years of age, too young, and he is not interested in her. He pleads with her to stop torturing him, admitting that he wished he had found a matchmaker for them ten years ago. He states that he still wants her, but she says he cannot and Lǐyán’s sister is the best he can do. She runs away, saying she has her own problems supported by flight music propelled by strings spiritoso and bubbling woodwinds. He chases her, but eventually gives up the chase.

That night the four celebrate Xiù’s sixteenth birthday. They begin playing “Rock, Paper, Scissors”, with the loser having to drink a glass of wine. Yet when Xiù and then Lǐyán lose, Yùwén drinks their glasses of wine. A drunken Yùwén becomes affectionate with Zhìchén and asks for bigger cups for the wine. We see concern in Lǐyán’s eyes as he takes notice of their affectionate interaction. Lǐyán walks away dejected and sits in his chair as the merriment plays out. 1:01:30 “Lovely Little Rose Reprise” both are drunk, and Zhìchén begins singing the “Lovely Little Rose” song while becoming increasingly affectionate with Yùwén until Xiù pulls him away by the hand. Later, Yùwén puts on her finest dress and goes into the garden alight with full moon light. She meets Zhìchén outside his door, and asks to go in. He refuses and she barges in past him. She again prepares to light the candle, yet he extinguishes the match. He picks her up in his arms, moves towards the bed, pauses, and then sets her down instead on a chair. He then departs and locks her in his room. She punches through a glass panel, unlocks the door, but cuts her hand doing so. Zhìchén treats her wound and see her looking at him lovingly as he kisses her bandaged hand. She thanks him, and then departs, returning to her room where she lays down.

Zhìchén visits Lǐyán and says he cannot sleep, Lǐyán gifts him one of his sleeping pills. Zhìchén however takes the whole bottle to his room. He lays down in bed and Yùwén visits Lǐyán saying she cannot sleep. He asks her to light a candle, which she at first refuses, but then relents. Lǐyán confides to her how Zhìchén has brought joy to the house and made her smile. He commits to getting well so he can be a proper husband. He asks her if she is still in love with Zhìchén, but her denial is unconvincing. She departs unsettled by his behavior. The next day at 1:15:21 “Yùwén Returns to the Wall” is carried by a musical narrative of despair. As she climbs up to a gap in the wall over the river, a dire crescendo dramatico erupts only for the storm to dissipate after she hesitates. We return to musical narrative of despair as she turns about and walks back to the path. Later, Zhìchén visits Lǐyán and informs him he is leaving. When Lǐyán asks him why, he curtly replies that he must. Lǐyán insists he stay, but is told to just make sure he takes care of his heart. Lǐyán again insists that he stay, not for his sake, but for Yùwén because it makes her happy. He returns his sleeping pills and confesses that he was inappropriate, and not to fault Yùwén. Lǐyán then asks for him to stay one more day to end the scene.

Yùwén returns home and says nothing to Lǐyán as she returns to her room. In her mind she says she needs to change her life as she sits down to embroider. Later Lǐyán leaves the house and finds Zhìchén and Yùwén talking in the garden. She seems to be crying and Lǐyán returns to the house and visits Yùwén’s room before returning to his. He takes the entire bottle of sleeping pills and then with despair goes to bed. Yùwén returns to her bedroom as Huáng visits Lǐyán to see if he wants a snack. He discovers he has gone limp and cries out for Yùwén who runs to him. She finds the sleeping pill bottle empty and orders Huang to fetch Zhìchén. She asks him to save him for her. Xiù joins and is distraught and frantic, begging Zhìchén to save her brother. Zhìchén gives him an injection, and after a few hours, Lǐyán wakes up. She asks him why he did it, but is met by a single tear and silence. Zhìchén asks her to leave so Lǐyán can rest and recover. Later Xiù informs Yùwén that Lǐyán is better and has eaten. She then takes Yùwén by both hands and asks if she and Zhìchén are in love, to which she cries and answers, yes. They hug and the scene fades out.

Later we see Huáng, Xiù and Zhìchén walking along the road out of town. Zhìchén says he can go the rest of the way alone to the train station over Xiù’s objections. She asks him if he will visit again, and he says yes, in the spring. 1:32:32 “Finale” reveals the three walking down the road supported by a happy musical narrative, which abounds with hope. We shift to Yùwén who gazes across the land from atop the city wall with Lǐyán approaching to join her. Musically, a wondrous and refulgent paean of rebirth swells as husband and wife unite. Yùwén lovingly takes Lǐyán’s hand and then points with her other to the far distant horizon in a gesture of hope for their future.

It is a sad commentary that so many film scores of China’s Golden Age were never recorded for commercial release. This was a most challenging review for me as my musical aesthetic is attracted to scores with a prominent musical footprint. Huang Yijun however in this film supports with minimalism, which embraces significant use of silence. Having watched the film I must admit that the use of silence was very effective in supporting the film’s narrative, and in the seven scenes music was used, it achieved an excellent cinematic confluence. Zhìchén and Yùwén were young lovers who by circumstances beyond their control, never able to marry. A chance meeting ten years later resurrected intense feeling in both with a fervent desire to rekindle their romance. Yet duty, marital fidelity, guilt, and personal honor create insurmountable impediments. Huang chose to speak to Zhìchén and Yùwén’s emotional conflict with two traditional Chinese ballads, which speak of romantic yearnings and a wistful longing for days long passed. The music for our lover’s Zhìchén and Yùwén’s rendezvous where they realize what their heart’s desire cannot come to fruition, and the finale, which offers a paean of hope and reconciliation for Yùwén and Lǐyán were perfectly conceived and executed. Folks, Chinese Golden Age film scores are a road less traveled, but one I believe we should all take. This score offers masterful use of minimalism and silence and I do recommend you take time out to view what many believe to be China’s greatest movie to hear it.

For those of you unfamiliar with the score, I regret there was no YouTube link available to hear the music outside of the film, although the entire film is available to watch here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UL5zKdFuC9A.

Track Listing:

  • NOT AVAILABLE

Music composed by Huang Yijun.

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