Little is widely known about early Chinese cinema is West. To a lesser degree, the same can be said in China itself. Much of the influence of early film making in the country was dictated by wars and politics. The 1930s witnessed the first great era of cinema, which was brought to an abrupt end with the Japanese invasion of 1937. The second great era began after the war and saw films such as Myriad of Lights, Crows and Sparrows and The Spring River Flows East all draw large audiences. The crowning glory though was Fei Mu’s Spring in a Small Town. Sadly, it was denounced following the Communist Revolution a year after its release, and was largely forgotten for decades.

Dai Liyan (Shi Yu) is patriarch of the once prosperous Dai Family whose estates has largely been reduced to rubble following the Sino-Japanese War. Now an invalid, he lives in a loveless marriage with Zhou Yuwen (Wei Wei). His little sister (Zhang Hongmei) is an optimist with a sunny disposition despite the air of bitterness which lingers over the residence. When Liyan’s childhood friend Zhang Zhichen (Li Wei) visits he stirs up emotions in the pair of them. Unbeknownst to Liyan, Yuwen is Zhichen’s old flame. His arrival heralds conflicting emotions of love versus loyalty in Yuwen, whilst Liyan is happy to see the mysterious rekindling of his wife’s happiness.

Widely considered to be one of the greatest Chinese films of all time, Spring in a Small Town is a magnificent work of filmmaking. Much in the same way as the films of Yasujirō Ozu, Fei Mu concentrates on relationship dramas and the ties between people. Verging on the poetic, it casts an almost languid thrall over the viewer. The complete exclusion of the political resulted in its rejection by the Communist Party. Thankfully, it was restored with a new print by the China Film Archive in the early ’80s and remains to this day one of the crowning glories of Chinese cinema.

Special features

• BFI re-release trailer
• A Small Town in China (1933, 9 mins): an intimate portrait of community life in an unidentified Chinese town
• This is China (1946, 9 mins): a fascinating compilation of scenes showing diversity and disparity in 1940s China
• Fully illustrated booklet with complete credits

Spring in a Small Town is released on DVD by the BFI on February 23.