小城之春 – The best Chinese-language movies of all time

The Hong Kong Film Awards have voted
小城之春 Spring in a Small Town, directed by Fei Mu as the number 1 Chinese language film of the last 100 years. The film along with the director had sunk into obscurity until it was remade in 2002 by fifth generation filmmaker Tian Zhuangzhuang as Springtime in a Small Town. The top twenty are at the bottom of the article below. Expect copies in your local pirate DVD store last week.

Spring in a Small Town (known as Xiao Chen Zi Chun in Mandarin, and also sometimes known as Spring in a Small City) was joined in the top three by two Hong Kong films –John Woo’s action-genre-defining A Better Tomorrow and Wong Kar Wai’s Days of Being Wild, while Chen Kaige’s Yellow Earth and Taiwanese Hou Hsiao-hsien’s City of Sadness rounded up the top five.

Oscar-winner Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, directed by Ang Lee, only managed 10th place. Despite having several critically acclaimed movies under his belt, China’s leading director Zhang Yimou’s films were largely snubbed, with only 1987’s Red Sorghum and 1992’s Story of Qiuju making it into the list. Two of his more popular works –Raise the Red Lantern and martial arts flick Hero –were not included in the list.

Despite some frankly odd choices and notable snubs, critics have largely agreed that Spring in a Small Town deserves the top spot in the list because of its strong cinematic feel.

—The Star online

The best Chinese-language movies of all time

The Hong Kong Film Awards Association recently voted obscure 1948’s movie Spring in a Small Town as the best Chinese-language movie in 100 years. ALLAN KOAY and MICHAEL CHEANG dig up some information on the movie and talk to several local filmmakers about the HKFA’s list.

Spring in a Small Town is widely considered the best Chinese movie ever made; yet for all its brilliance and critical acclaim, the black-and-white film made way back in 1948 remains largely unseen and unheard of outside of China.

The classic chamber drama, directed by Fei Mu, gained revived interest in 2002, when Chinese fifth generation filmmaker Tian Zhuangzhuang (The Horse Thief, The Blue Kite) remade it as Springtime in a Small Town. Tian remained faithful to the original but with some minor additions and changes.

Fei Mu’s version is now poised to gain the popularity it never got back in its day, as it was voted the best Chinese-language movie in 100 years by the Hong Kong Film Awards Association recently.

The list was compiled for the Hong Kong Film Awards (HKFA) ceremony, scheduled for March 27, and celebrating the first 100 years of Chinese cinema, which began in 1905 with China’s first film, The Battle of Dingjunshan.

The panel of judges –which included film directors, critics, scriptwriters, producers, actors and academics –were asked to list 20 of their favourite Chinese movies, and the films’final rankings were decided by the number of votes they received.

Spring in a Small Town (known as Xiao Chen Zi Chun in Mandarin, and also sometimes known as Spring in a Small City) was joined in the top three by two Hong Kong films –John Woo’s action-genre-defining A Better Tomorrow and Wong Kar Wai’s Days of Being Wild, while Chen Kaige’s Yellow Earth and Taiwanese Hou Hsiao-hsien’s City of Sadness rounded up the top five.

Oscar-winner Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, directed by Ang Lee, only managed 10th place. Despite having several critically acclaimed movies under his belt, China’s leading director Zhang Yimou’s films were largely snubbed, with only 1987’s Red Sorghum and 1992’s Story of Qiuju making it into the list. Two of his more popular works –Raise the Red Lantern and martial arts flick Hero –were not included in the list.

Despite some frankly odd choices and notable snubs, critics have largely agreed that Spring in a Small Town deserves the top spot in the list because of its strong cinematic feel.

Author and film critic Leung Ping-kwan, who was on the panel of 100 judges who compiled the top 100 list, was quoted in an AP news report as saying that Fei Mu (1906-1951) was way ahead of his time.

Spring in a Small Town is the last feature film made by Fei Mu. Though the movie made little impact when it was released, it is still regarded as one of the best Chinese films ever made.

It revolves around the lives of a bored married couple living in a small town during the Japanese occupation of China. The husband, Dai Liyan, suffers from severe depression after losing his family fortune in World War II.

The couple’s life is turned upside-down when a young doctor, Zhang Zhichen, who is an old friend of Dai and ex-lover of Dai’s wife Zhou Yuwen, comes to visit. Later, Dai’s younger sister Dai Xiu falls in love with the charming doctor.

Views of Malaysian filmmakers

Award-winning Malaysian independent filmmaker Ho Yuhang (Min, Sanctuary), who had seen the original 1948 black-and-white version of Spring in a Small Town, said the movie is a very good look at how Chinese people love. (He bought his VCD copy a few years ago from a Chinese bookstore in Kuala Lumpur.)

“The way the Chinese express their love is very different from the way Westerners do it,”said Ho. “We have more restrained relationships and Spring in a Small Town shows this very well.

“The movie is a classic. It is a very restrained and beautiful film, unlike a lot of films these days, which tend to be too melodramatic.”

Ho also feels that Hou Hsiao-hsien’s 1985 film, The Time to Live and The Time to Die, should also be in the top 10 (it is No.24 on the list), and cited A Brighter Summer Day (Edward Yang), Days of Being Wild (Wong Kar Wai) and The Platform (Jia Zhang Ke) as his other favourite Chinese films

Wong Tuck Cheong, president of Kelab Seni Filem Malaysia, has also seen Spring in a Small Town and is impressed by it. Wong said although the sets are a little “stagey”, he commended the film for its well-controlled story about relationships.

“It is never melodramatic, and there is no raving and ranting by the characters, no overflow of emotions,”said Wong.

He first heard of the film at the Hawaii International Film Festival about 10 years ago, when someone mentioned the title during a conference on Asian films. He obtained a copy from a Malaysian who was living in Australia, whom he met at the festival.

Asked what he thought of the HKFA’s list, Wong said: “They must have used some weird criteria. Putting A Better Tomorrow at number two is strange, because I would put City of Sadness way above that. I’m sure there are many more mainland Chinese films that few people know about but deserve to be listed, such as Crows and Sparrows (Zheng Junli, 1949).”

Yasmin Ahmad, award-winning director of the recent Malaysian hit movie Sepet, voiced her reservations about best-of lists. She said that making a list of the best Chinese films ever is a very big statement and somewhat facile.

“Could there really be such a thing as the ‘greatest Chinese film of all time’or the greatest painting or poem or story?”she asked, after being contacted in France just after Sepet took the Grand Jury Prize at the 27th Creteil International Women Directors Festival.

Although she has not seen Spring in a Small Town, she cited other Chinese films as her favourites, among them The Story of Qiu Ju by Zhang Yimou, Comrades: Almost a Love Story by Peter Chan and A Better Tomorrow by John Woo (all of which are on the HKFA’s list, with Woo’s in the No.2 spot).

“I wouldn’t say they are the best, just the ones I like the most,”she added.

The top 20 movies from Hong Kong Film Awards Association’s list of Top 100 Movies.

1) Springtime in a Small Town (1948) – Fei Mu, China
2) A Better Tomorrow (1986) –John Woo, Hong Kong
3) Days of Being Wild (1990) –Wong Kar Wai, Hong Kong
4) Yellow Earth (1984) –Chen Kaige, Mainland China
5) City of Sadness (1989) –Hou Hsiao-hsien, Taiwan
6) Long Arm of the Law (1984) –Johnny Mak, Hong Kong
7) Dragon Inn (1967) –King Hu, Taiwan
8) Boat People (1982) –Ann Hui, Hong Kong
9) A Touch of Zen (1971) –King Hu, Taiwan
10) Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) –Ang Lee, Taiwan/Hong Kong
11) Street Angel (1937) –Yuan Mu-Jih, China
12) A Brighter Summer Day (1991) –Edward Yang, Taiwan
13) The Private Eye (1976) –Michael Hui, Hong Kong
14) The Mission (1999) –Johnnie To, Hong Kong
15) One-Armed Swordsman (1967) –Chang Cheh, Hong Kong
16) Fist of Fury (1972) –Lo Wei, Hong Kong
17) In the Heat of the Sun (1994) –Jiang Wen, Mainland China
18) In the Face of Demolition (1953) –Li Tie, Hong Kong
19) A Chinese Odyssey (1995) –Jeffrey Lau, Hong Kong
20) The Arch (1970) –Tang Shu-Shuen, Hong Kong