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Fei Mu, Mei Lanfang, and the Polemics of Screening China

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter discusses a turning point of Chinese cinematic aesthetics in the late 1940s. It focuses on two movies directed by Fei Mu, Eternal Regret and Spring in a Small Town. These two films, one featuring the stylized performance of Mei Lanfang, the greatest female impersonator of Beijing opera, and the other a realist melodrama of a wartime romance amid ruins, are very different projects. But the fact that they were shot back to back points to something more than a mere coincidence. It renders a compelling story of how Fei Mu, with the inspiration of Mei Lanfang, negotiated a new way of screening China, and more intriguingly, how he produced a radical manifestation of cinematic “Chineseness” where it was least expected.

Keywords: lyricism, air, Beijing opera, war, melodrama

This chapter focuses on Fei Mu 費穆 and his two 1948 films, Eternal Regret (生死恨) and Spring in a Small Town (小城之春). One of the most influential Chinese directors of the twentieth century, Fei Mu has been nicknamed “poet director” for his experimentation with form, penchant for symbolism, and philosophical contemplation of film as a modern visual medium of subjectivity.1 In the spring of 1948, Fei Mu made Eternal Regret—the first color picture of Chinese cinema—in collaboration with Mei Lanfang 梅蘭芳, master of female impersonation and the most innovative and popular Beijing opera singer in modern China. Almost at the same time, Fei Mu directed Spring in a Small Town, regarded by many critics as the best Chinese movie ever made.2

By relating the way in which the two movies were conceived and produced, I make the following observations. First, through Eternal Regret and Spring in a Small Town, Fei Mu ponders the fate of modern Chinese visual subjectivity not as an isolated existence but as a continued manifestation of historical experience across different periods, realities, and technologies; second, to envision such a subjectivity, he calls on the visual power of Chinese lyrical practices ranging from Mei Lanfang’s theatrics to classical Chinese painting theory, as well as on cinematic know-how, and invests them with a dynamics of mutual illumination; third, highlighting cinema’s capacity for generating lyrical aura, he asserts that it is the most viable manifestation of Chinese “poetic mind” in an age of mechanical reproduction. These factors, I argue, provide the context within which Fei Mu came to terms with the polemics of Chinese “national cinema.”

Cinema and Beijing opera were two of the most popular forms of performing arts in early modern China. Despite sharing little common ground in terms of their historical origin, aesthetic appeal, and visual technology, the two forms appeared to reciprocate each other as early as the incipient moment of Chinese moviemaking. Dingjun Mountain (定軍山, 1905), the first movie made in China, was based on a Beijing opera of the same title. By the midthirties, moviemakers and critics such as Tian Han 田漢 (p. 63) and Mao Dun 茅盾 had already noticed the reciprocal relations between the two forms in psychological input and technological effect. In view of the recent campaign to make Beijing opera “national drama,”3 these critics sought to elucidate the conditions of “national cinema.”4

Among these moviemakers and critics, none could surpass Fei Mu in either theory or practice. Eternal Regret and Spring in a Small Town represent the outcomes of his long and tortuous engagement with cinema and traditional theater. The two movies are very different projects, but the fact that they were shot back-to-back points to something more than a mere coincidence. As will be discussed below, when juxtaposed with one another, the two films present a compelling story of how Fei Mu, with the inspiration of Mei Lanfang, negotiated a new way of screening China and, more intriguingly, how he produced a radical manifestation of cinematic “Chineseness” where it was least expected.

In Search of the “Air” of Chinese Cinema

Before he became a director, Fei Mu served as assistant to Hou Yao 侯曜, film director and author of Techniques of Writing Shadowplay Scripts (影戲劇本作法, 1925), the first theory book about making Chinese cinema. Hou Yao shared with his peers a view of cinema as a kind of theater, calling it yingxi 影戲 (literally, “shadowplay”); he also noted that cinema conveys a far more powerful sense of realism thanks to the mediation of modern technology.5 Echoing Ferdinand Brunetière’s notion, Hou contended that “no struggle, no drama” and argued for a structure with which to incorporate the elements of conflict, such as crisis, confrontation, and obstacle, into a meaningful matrix.6

Fei Mu’s first three movies, Night in the City (城市之夜, 1933), Life (人生, 1934), and Sea of Fragrant Snow (香雪海, 1934), reveal the tension between him and both his mentor and the majority of directors of his time. Where Hou Yao stresses conflict, Fei Mu relieves it; and where Hou Yao upholds structure, Fei Mu subverts it. Thus when Hou Yao and his peers were approaching cinema in terms of the familiar genre of theater, Fei Mu was already trying to locate in film a new set of visual and cognitive schemes. His stance is best represented in the essay “A Brief Discussion of ‘Air’” (略談“空氣,” 1934), in which he proposes that a director should be good at creating “air”—the invisible yet crucial element that enlivens cinema—so as to “capture his audience’s attention and make them assimilated with the circumstances of the characters.”7 He argues that this “air” can be generated in four ways:

First, from the function of the camera on its own terms; second, from the object of the camera; third, from a suggestive mise-en-scène, fourth, from sound effect.8

For Fei Mu, the camera eye, thanks to its technological virtuosity, is far more agile than human vision, and it therefore brings about a visual wonder beyond the verisimilar effect of live theater. In other words, though committed to the reflective power of (p. 64) cinema, Fei Mu contends that the camera is capable of creating reality on a different plane. He notices that various types of “air” arise when “cinematography is linked with the objects being filmed”9 and that the “objects” can be either drawn from the world of nature or constituted by artifice.

As in real life, “air” is the indispensable element that enlivens cinema, while it comes across as anything but visible. “Air” can only be hinted at rather than presented; it nevertheless presupposes a careful design of camerawork. Thus, one finds a paradox in Fei Mu’s essay, in that he seeks to utilize the new, powerful specular apparatus of cinema to approximate an invisible atmosphere. Optical setup and visual spontaneity are seen as mutually implicating each other, thus generating the fantastic effect of movies.

Nevertheless, Fei Mu adds a polemical layer to his theory by calling attention to “new drama” (新劇). New drama is a hybrid genre inspired by both traditional Chinese and recently imported Western theater; its boisterous, sensational effect is anything but the “air” Fei Mu hopes to achieve in his movies. Interestingly enough, Fei Mu found in new drama a special realistic appeal thanks to its hybrid combination of topical subjects, strange innovations, and stylized performative skill derived from traditional theater. Moreover, Fei Mu was impressed by the moral bearings embedded in new drama, such that he deplored the recent proliferation of movies with nonsensical, fantastic elements.10 Beyond surface tears and exclamations, as he would have it, new drama brings forth the “moral occult,” elucidating virtues and vices of humanity otherwise eclipsed in actual life.11

Vacillating between the appeal of the ethereal “air” of cinema and the call for the “moral occult” of new drama, Fei Mu had yet to find a way to smooth over the inconsistencies of his claims. But precisely because his claims are glaringly contradictory, we are prompted to rethink the magnitude of his stake in reforming Chinese visual aesthetics and ethics. Fei Mu’s efforts at negotiating theater and cinema are illustrated by his next few pictures. Song of China (天倫, 1934), for instance, tells of the story of a prodigal son turned benevolent Confucian patriarch over a span of three generations. While made as part of the national campaign for the New Life Movement, the movie nonetheless shows Fei Mu’s intent to valorize Confucian values in the post–May Fourth era—for which he earned the nickname “Modern Saint” (摩登聖人).12

As if responding to the criticism that he was indifferent to the impending national crisis, Fei Mu tried to highlight in his movies his political agenda in the midthirties. Blood on Wolf Mountain (狼山喋血記, 1936), his first sound movie, propagates the theme of anti-Japanese aggression. Fei Mu’s experimentation during this time culminated in a short feature An Interrupted Dream in a Spring Chamber (春閨夢斷, 1937), one of the eight episodes of the omnibus work Symphony of Lianhua Studio (聯華交響曲).13 His patriotic intention notwithstanding, Fei Mu is said to have been much struck by Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920);14 indeed, the attention that An Interrupted Dream lavishes on distorted set design, active camera angles, sharp lighting contrast, and stylized acting carries clear imprints of German expressionist cinema.

At the same time, Fei Mu demonstrated his national consciousness by undertaking a very different kind of movie—the Beijing opera film Murder in an Oratory (斬經堂, 1937). The movie starred Zhou Xinfang 周信芳 (also known as Qiling Tong 麒麟童), (p. 65) one of the most popular actors in the male role (laosheng 老生) in 1930s China. Murder in an Oratory raises two questions with respect to Fei Mu’s cinematic aesthetics. First, for all his fondness for Beijing opera, Fei Mu had been resistant to making films based squarely on traditional theater. Cinema, as he maintained, should enjoy a position independent of drama. Second, a more immediate reason for Fei Mu to take up Beijing opera at this time stemmed from his desire to respond to the call for nationalism within the film industry.15 While both Blood on Wolf Mountain and An Interrupted Dream carry a patriotic theme, the expressionist style in which they are made still suggests Fei Mu’s attachment to Western inspirations. Fei Mu may have asked himself: If he meant to promote a genuinely “Chinese” culture, wouldn’t it be a new challenge, or mission, to make a movie of Beijing opera, the “national drama”? Here Fei Mu’s task lies not merely in reconciling his personal taste for “air” and the inherent sensationalism of traditional theater, as discussed above; he also has to deal with the more slippery issue of what constitutes the Chineseness of Chinese cinema.

Take Murder in an Oratory. The movie could easily be identified as “Chinese” for its story, which presents Confucian values of loyalty and filial piety in conflict, or merely for its costume, music, and setting. But what intrigued Fei Mu is the fact that Beijing opera, despite its melodramatic plot and high-strung emotional charge, is predicated on a theatrics through which actions are aestheticized and emotions codified. If there is an affective motive to speak of, it has less to do with empathy than with a “distanced” sympathy. Hence Beijing opera produces a unique effect of catharsis, in the sense that the audience undergoes not so much a “purification” from pity and fear as an acquiescence to the stylized representation of human conditions.

Nevertheless, despite his theoretical engagement, Fei Mu experienced unexpected hurdles when shooting Murder in an Oratory. Fei Mu and Zhou Xinfang are said to have negotiated numerous times before they were finally able to reach a compromise on issues that concerned them. To suggest a theatrical ambiance, Fei Mu had his camera positioned mostly at a middle or long distance throughout the movie and was restrained in presenting action and mood. Still, for those not familiar with Beijing opera, the movie may look like no more than a screen reproduction of traditional performance. The cut from exterior to interior scenes and from stylized to realistic gestures and props is often so abrupt as to exaggerate the gap between the two genres. Fei Mu sounded sincere when he later claimed that he had yet to grasp the method of making a “Chinese” movie: its fundamental challenge is “not so much a problem of technique as one of artistry.”16 Fei Mu’s search for this “artistry” was to be realized only after his encounter with Mei Lanfang, the most illustrious figure of Beijing opera.

Eternal Regret

In the winter of 1947, Fei Mu paid a visit to Mei Lanfang and proposed to collaborate with him on a Beijing opera movie in color, which would be the first color picture ever to be made in China. The two first met in Hong Kong in the late 1930s, and for their project (p. 66) they settled on the opera Eternal Regret. Premiering in 1936, the opera was derived from an early Ming story about the adventures of a woman, Han Yuniang, after the 1129 fall of the Northern Song dynasty to the Nüzhen Tartars. Yuniang falls into the hands of a Tartar lord and is forced to marry a fellow Han slave, Cheng Pengju. She persuades Cheng to flee south on their wedding night, only to be turned in by him out of fear. Upon seeing Yuniang being brutally punished, Cheng becomes convinced of her loyalty and fidelity. He acts on her wish to flee and join the Song army and eventually becomes a governor. For years Cheng misses his wife, but when he finally finds her, it is too late. Already wasted from hardship and longing, Yuniang dies the moment she is reunited with her husband.

Mei Lanfang produced Eternal Regret on the eve of the Second Sino-Japanese War, with a clear goal of critiquing Japanese expansionism and propagating patriotism. In the aftermath of the war, both Mei and Fei Mu believed that the opera’s nationalist theme remained as powerful as it had been when the opera was first performed, its political poignancy only accentuated as a result of the emerging civil war. The play’s tragic ending, a rarity in the repertoire of Beijing opera, appealed to them, as it foregrounds the contingency of history that befell common men and women.

Mei Lanfang was no newcomer to filmmaking. He shot his first movie as early as 1920, and by 1947 he had starred in eight features.17 When visiting the United States in 1930, Mei made his first sound film and befriended stars such as Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, and Mary Pickford.18 On his tour of the Soviet Union in 1935, Mei not only met with Sergei Eisenstein but also shot an episode of his performance of Hongniguan 虹霓关 [Hongni pass] at the latter’s invitation.19 As is evinced by his recollection, Mei was attuned to the unique technological and aesthetic demands of filmmaking, particularly the “segmentation” of camerawork, which results in a continued reorientation of time, mood, and bodily movement. When making silent films in early years, Mei tried to time his gestural rhythm and expression in such a way as to evoke a “visual” effect of singing.20 Upon the advent of sound-track technology, he took it as a great advantage to have his image and voice disseminated to the audiences far and wide. Constantly pursuing ways to enhance his performance, Mei was naturally attracted to the prospect of producing the first color picture in China.

When implementing Mei Lanfang’s art into cinematic production, Fei Mu came across no fewer hurdles than before. He still had to deal with the fundamental discrepancies between the abstraction of Beijing opera and the verisimilar appeal of cinema. He was determined not to make a documentary-like movie of Eternal Regret and instead hoped to draw inspiration from the vocal and choreographic configuration of musicals. Meanwhile, he looked to the style of classical Chinese painting to generate a suggestive ambience. One major attraction of the new movie was the adoption of color, which presumably would enhance the power of visual spectacle on the screen. Fei Mu, however, contended that “if color is toned down, it could become more beautiful,” although “if a certain color is toned up, feeling could become more beautiful.”21 Accordingly, actors were asked to wear lighter makeup, and the set and costumes were designed to downplay their color scheme, while Fei Mu paid special attention to lighting so as to foreground the “color” of the mood of select scenes.22

(p. 67) Above all, Fei Mu had to work closely with Mei Lanfang in turning the master’s acting into one suitable for the camera. As Mei recalled, before formal work started, Fei Mu test-shot a segment of his performance in a conventional stage format, with no realistic props or backgrounds except for a customary set consisting of a table and two chairs. Much to Mei’s dismay, the footage looked tedious and banal, a sharp contrast to his onstage performances. Fei Mu concluded that camera projection had “flattened” the three-dimensional stage performance into a “shadowplay” devoid of sculptural perception. Enlivening Mei’s on-screen performance necessitated a rethinking of not only acting skill but cinematic technology.

Our focus here is the climax of the play, “night soliloquy” (夜訴), in which Yuniang, now in exile, is seen weaving alone at night while recollecting the trials she has gone through. In the stage performance, Yuniang sings for as long as twenty minutes and is seated throughout her singing, her physical movement reduced to a few gestures of weaving. This is a moment of lyrical caesura, so to speak, when motion gives way to emotion, and it requires an acting of the most subtle kind to bring out the psychological turmoil underneath bodily composure.

Fei Mu did not think the night scene would work well on screen: it would appear too long and tedious for a “motion” picture. To redesign the scene, he ordered a real, oversized loom in replacement of the original prop, and asked Mei Lanfang to figure out a way to interact with it. This was a huge challenge for Mei because, for one thing, the size of the loom was such that it might overshadow him were he to sing sitting next to or behind it. A more serious concern, however, was that the loom appeared to be an intrusion into a performance system premised on stylization and symbolism. It reminded Mei and his audience of the fact that a clumsy “reality” had set in, demanding its place in an acting that otherwise programs a given experience into conventions.

Although scholars have expressed reservations about this scene,23 I take it as a crucial moment of Fei Mu’s intervention with the representational paradigm of Beijing opera. I argue that the loom is as much a realistic object as it is a tool with which Fei Mu shocked his cast and audience into a cinematic re-vision of traditional theater. To begin with, Fei Mu had Mei Lanfang perform with not one but two “machines”: Mei is confronted by a life-size loom; meanwhile he is also watched by a camera. Both machines, however different in function, are set up in the name of recapitulating reality more accurately. Mei therefore had to significantly modify his movement to accommodate both the loom and the camera.

But one has to keep in mind that Fei Mu is not a simple-minded believer in the stark realism of moviemaking. He must have pondered: If Beijing opera is already an art heavily mediated by conventions, what kind of “effect of the real” can a Beijing opera movie bring about through a camera lens? By disturbing the aesthetic equilibrium of Mei Lanfang’s acting with the conventional prop loom, Fei Mu introduced an “air” into his film. This “air” points not so much to a verisimilar illusion as to the contested effect of theater versus screen, bodily semblance versus mechanical reproduction.

We need to pay equal attention to Mei Lanfang’s contribution to the movie. A conscientious artist, Mei spent many sleepless nights trying to find a way to incorporate the loom (p. 68) into his acting before the camera, and the result was most inspiring. As seen in the movie, Mei does not sit through the “night soliloquy” scene as in his onstage performance; rather, he moves around the loom, demonstrating a variety of gestures, such as leaning on it, dusting its parts, weaving with a shuttle, and occasionally pausing and pondering—all while singing his arias. Instead of acting with the loom, Mei acts on it in the sense that he treats it as that which motivates his feeling and movement. The loom, a quintessential token of female productivity in ancient China,24 appears first to be a reminder of Yuniang’s gratuitous labor; it nevertheless takes on a new dimension along with her weaving and singing. Stranded in a foreign place, Yuniang is wasting away year after year. But she has to weave to make a living and sustain her waiting, to the point where the mechanical rhythm of the loom seems resonant with the Sisyphean soundings from her heart.

The loom ends up becoming a testimony to the Chinese Penelope’s romantic and loyalist feeling. Moviemaking thus prompts Mei to play out a fundamental Chinese lyrical motif—from ganwu 感物 (feeling the object/world) to ganwu 感悟 (epiphany). One recalls that, etymologically, the Chinese character shu 抒 (unravel, release) in shuqing 抒情, or “lyricism,” is interchangeable with the character 杼, which is pronounced zhu and literally means “loom.” In other words, Mei’s interaction with the loom brings back to mind the bifurcated faculty inherent in Chinese lyricism: to unravel, and at the same time to weave, the tapestry of feeling.

Where Mei Lanfang lends his magical touch to the loom, Fei Mu works with his camera to capture the lyrical “air” of the scene as a whole. He lets his camera first pan across the domestic space, and then focus on Yuniang’s interaction with the loom. With a few shots from a slightly elevated angle, his camera tracks Mei’s movement horizontally, at a pace in response to the tempo of his singing. This camera rarely gets too close to Mei, but it follows his movement around the loom, providing the audience with an almost 360-degree shot of Mei at work. In this way, Fei Mu renders a visual access to Mei Lanfang the theater audience could never have achieved.

But Fei Mu’s camerawork is not merely a showing off of its optical agility; it acts as a conduit through which a new configuration of perceptions comes into sight. We thus come across a most intriguing moment. When panning across the set in following Mei, Fei Mu’s camera at least twice captures a glimpse of another, smaller loom—in the shape of the miniature prop one would have expected to see on the conventional stage. The coexistence of the two looms could hardly have been mere coincidence, given Fei Mu’s meticulous attention to mise-en-scène. For viewers familiar with Mei Lanfang’s onstage performances, the miniature prop loom is not a redundant entity of the otherwise minimalist set, but rather a token of the residual memory of Mei’s onstage performance, a trace that lingers behind any effort at “undoing” the past. The two looms, therefore, offset each other’s claim to realism as much as they contextualize each other’s function in bridging life and artistic representation.

The “night soliloquy” scene culminates with Yuniang falling asleep in the intermission of her work. Yuniang has a dream in which she finds her humble residence turning into a splendid edifice and her shabby clothes transformed into a set of luxurious garments, while a jubilant procession has arrived to welcome her to a reunion with her (p. 69) husband. Fei Mu uses a series of dissolves to effect an instantaneous, mutual diffusion of the real and the fantastic, something not easily achievable by stage production. He also uses a reddish hue of lighting to suggest a festive mood, as opposed to the bluish color scheme that dominates the weaving scene. More importantly, Fei Mu lets his camera pan back and forth to expose the fact that Yuniang’s house is actually part of a larger, empty studio set. The opening up of the optical scope, together with the use of dissolves, vividly reminds us that all happenings in the play, life or death, reality or dream, are forming a contiguous relationship under the spell of the camera. In this way, Fei Mu uses camerawork to advance his poetics of life as illusion versus realism.

Spring in a Small Town

Although preparation work started in the winter of 1947, the shooting of Eternal Regret was put off till the following summer for financial and technical reasons. In the spring of 1948, when waiting for the logistics for producing Eternal Regret to be resolved, Fei Mu found himself in a window period. It was at this time that he was given a script titled Spring in a Small Town and took interest in it. Fei Mu took up the project and finished it in three months, with a cast of five actors mostly unknown to audiences at the time. Spring in a Small Town was nevertheless to become a landmark picture, having even been ranked the best in the first century of Chinese cinematic history.25

Much has been said about Spring in a Small Town as a poetic movie. But one has yet to inquire into how Fei Mu’s movie works to bring out his poetics. In his essay “On the Future of Chinese-Made Cinema” (國產片的出路問題)—written right before the shooting of Spring in a Small Town—Fei Mu points out three challenges faced by Chinese moviemakers: first, the lack of facilities and well-trained actors; second, a stress on “content,” often motivated by propaganda and didacticism, at the expense of “form”; and third, a conflict between realism and romanticism. Fei Mu is particularly concerned about the third challenge. He acknowledges that conscientious Chinese directors never follow the Hollywood trend by making only crowd-pleasers but rather strive to “face up to reality,” with the result that their works are “closer to the European trend, showing more subjectivity in skill.”26 Fei Mu welcomes this European inclination, but he deplores that in displaying their “subjective” sensibility vis-à-vis reality, most of his fellow directors merely let sentimentalism take over, such that they fall prey to a crude presentation of romanticism plus realism, “totally incongruous with the coherent style required of a film.”27 Fei Mu’s concern boils down to the question of how, given its limited resources, a “Chinese made” movie could demonstrate a “subjective” reflection of reality while succumbing neither to emotional excess nor to artistic formulism. Spring in a Small Town showcases Fei Mu’s concern as well as his answer to it.

The story of Spring in a Small Town takes place one year after the end of the Sino-Japanese War (1946), while the movie itself was made one year before the Chinese Communist takeover of the mainland (1949). The historical implications of Fei Mu’s project could not have been clearer: To what extent can a movie, presumably a most (p. 70) accurate vehicle of visual representation, register the sentiment of his time? Just the year before (1947), three films had won huge box-office success, Far-Away Love (遙遠的愛), Eight Thousand Miles of Clouds and Moon (八千里路雲和月), and A Spring River Flows East (一江春水向東流). These movies all deal with the consequences of the war, and they are all packaged in a melodramatic form, or what Fei Mu would have called “romanticism plus realism.” They address a cluster of political or ethical concerns—such as ideological allegiance, family responsibility, and marital fidelity—that challenge Chinese humanity when all values were turned upside down.

Fei Mu made his movie an intriguing dialogue with this trend. Roaming atop a ruined city wall every day, his heroine, Zhou Yuwen, is a woman trapped in a lifeless marriage with Dai Liyan, the bed-ridden master of a decayed household. Yuwen’s romantic passion is rekindled when her first love, Zhang Zhichen, who happens to be Liyan’s close friend, pays them a surprise visit. The triangle quickly becomes too much to bear for all three parties. With such a plot Fei Mu could have easily made a tearjerker of Spring in a Small Town, thereby aligning himself with the directors of the aforementioned movies. However, Fei Mu “reprogrammed” the emotional input of the story at both public and personal levels and produced a movie full of psychological nuances and poetic undertones. Spring in a Small Town ends with “nothing” really happening. After much inner struggle, Yuwen decides to stay with her husband; we last see her and Liyan standing together on the top of the city wall, watching Zhichen leave.

Leftist critics have criticized the decadent, ambiguous mood of the movie, while sympathetic reviewers have argued that Fei Mu deserves praise precisely because he conveys the pervasive melancholy at a time when nothing seemed to hold firm any more. Neither side, however, was able to offer more insight into how sentiment could be modulated to represent the impending historical crisis, let alone how an “air” could be conjured up to characterize a “national movie” about such a crisis.28 Fei Mu has famously written about his motive and methodology of shooting Spring in a Small Town:

In order to transmit the gloomy mood of old China, I have undertaken a presumptuous and daring experimentation with my work, relying on “long take” and “slow motion” (without seeking any further craft). As a result, the movie comes across as being too dull….The playwright hoped to make a movie that neither cries out nor points a way out. For me, however, to make such a movie is far less easy or powerful than a production based on either sentimentalism or didacticism….The only thing I can offer to console myself, however ironically, is that I did not play with any craft.29

Here Fei Mu notes two specific techniques that he uses in his film: the long take and slow motion.

As repeatedly observed by critics, Spring in a Small Town is dominated by long takes, which efficiently slow down the sense of temporality, as opposed to the more popular device of montage often adopted by mainstream films. Fei Mu’s long takes, however, are never monotonous, extended shots over a length of time, but rather are endowed with nuanced devices aimed at multiple associations with feeling. Props, paraphernalia, (p. 71) lighting, and setting are all carefully arranged. Stage direction plays an equally important role. Related to Fei Mu’s long takes is his preference for dissolves. Compared with cuts, dissolves facilitate a smoother and more rhythmic transition within individual and between scenes. Within a single scene, dissolves function to suggest changing perspectives of the mind’s eye of either characters or implied viewers. In Li Cheuk-to’s 李焯桃 words, “Dissolves bring in a sense of continuity….The film’s long takes linked together by dissolves are so constructed that conflicts and contradictions develop within the same space.”30 Take the scene of Yuwen and Zhichen’s meeting on the city wall, which presents Liyan’s plan to have Zhichen marry Dai Xiu, Liyan’s sister. Fei Mu uses three dissolves, each showing Yuwen and Zhichen taking different positions against the same background, to intimate the passage of time and the pressure of prolonged uncertainty during the talk. When Yuwen finally tells Zhichen her decision, that she will stay, the scene cuts to her running away from the wall, an action that offsets the preceding, almost dreamlike, sequence composed of dissolves.

Fei Mu’s frequent use of long takes has been cited as a Chinese response to the theory of his contemporary, André Bazin.31 Bazin critiques the artificial collage of montage and its implied ideology relating to time and space, promoting instead a stark cinematic realism that can bring out the ontological state of the real in flux through the camera lens. Not unlike Bazin, Fei Mu stresses cinema’s capacity for screening the world as it “really is.” But when coming to the issue of what constitutes the real, Fei Mu has a rather different take. If Bazin brings realism to showcase a Bergsonian obsession with the flux of time and subjectivity’s vital position along with time,32 Fei Mu emphasizes not the existential potential embedded in film but its continuous interplay with fullness and emptiness, truthfulness and fictionality, on- and off-screen. He is more concerned with how cinema can capture the layered emotive implications of humanity vis-à-vis external stimuli, and how cinema can lend an aesthetic and ethical perspective through which fragments of life can be sutured and floating moods can be anchored, however tentatively.

This leads us to rethink the way Fei Mu brings long takes to bear on the aesthetics of visuality in the Chinese tradition. Just like a classical hand-scroll painting that calls forth moveable, changing viewpoints, Fei Mu achieves through his camerawork multiple perspectives. Instead of a panoramic view, the scroll-like horizontal camerawork renders scenes in a series of seemingly inexhaustible segments, thereby giving rise to proliferating perspectives. Such a device encourages viewers to make associations with scenes continually coming into, and falling out of, sight; it thereby gives rise to a configuration of time and space in sharp contrast with that of pictures based on perspectivism.33

Take the birthday party scene in which the feeling between Yuwen and Zhichen finally becomes “visible” to Liyan. The camera pans to introduce a series of interactions between wife and husband, wife and lover, wife and her sister-in-law, and servant and master. When everyone appears increasingly taken over by the mood of inebriation, the ethical, romantic, and class orders they otherwise would have observed start to dissolve. The scene was originally shot in a single take, and if it had not been well rehearsed, Fei Mu would not have been able to control so precisely the multiple actions along with (p. 72) the same time sequence. Fei Mu’s camera moves continually throughout the long take, as if driven by a curiosity of its own about the goings-on both between and within the characters. Moreover, to build up the tension, Fei Mu cuts the footage so as to flaunt key moments of changing perspectives. The result is a series of montages—within the drinking take—of skewed relations among the characters that unfold amid the noises of the wine game, under glimmering lamplight, in a cramped space of a traditional Chinese house.

Equally suggestive is Fei Mu’s use of slow motion as a companion technique of the long take. By slow motion, however, Fei Mu does not mean a technique of overcranking the film; Spring in a Small Town features no part where the speed of images actually slows down. Rather, he points to a special acting and directing style that creates the impression that action becomes protracted and mood prolonged. Fei Mu explains that he adopts this sort of slow motion so as to foreground a group of figures lagging behind their time and incapable of real action—and in this respect it resembles one of Anton Chekhov’s plays.

But one wonders if perhaps Fei Mu did not play with a more polemic thought. Just as he invests in long takes a spatial view of Chinese reality, Fei Mu uses slow motion as a way to intervene with time. Slow motion offers a different pace in one’s conceptualization of time and history, in contrast to the contemporary call for a quick fix of the status quo though war and revolution. Slow motion also means a stylized motion, one informed by aesthetic imaginaries and movements with an aim to reconfigure the relationships between the subject and the world, distance and proximity. Finally, when it holds the diegesis of a movie at such a dawdling pace, almost to the point of a pause, slow motion tends to “spatialize” time, calling attention to the multiple layers of reality in a synchronized zone.

Fei Mu’s major source of inspiration has to be Mei Lanfang. It was in the early 1940s that Fei Mu became increasingly familiar with Mei and with Mei’s art. As Fei Mu sees it, the charm of Mei Lanfang’s performance resides in its smooth oscillation between mimetic identification and self-alienation, such that it gives rise to a rhythmic shuffling between life and acting. For him, Mei neither lets himself be completely overtaken by his role nor deliberately calls forth an “alienation effect.” Performance is therefore treated like an event in its own right, like any other that sets in motion the fiduciary relationships between self and other, existential temporality and historical flow.

Finally, I call attention to the fact that Spring in a Small Town was made during the interim of the production of Eternal Regret, and with this context in mind, its aesthetic premise, performative style, and even ideological underpinning can be appreciated in relation to those informing the Beijing opera movie. In the opera, Han Yuniang and Cheng Pengju are Han slaves whom their barbarian lord has arranged to have marry each other. Although they have little romantic attachment to speak of, they share the same loyalism that becomes the catalyst of their eventual emotional bonding. Years of separation and hardship cannot diminish their mutual trust; but when their reunion turns out to be a time for eternal farewell, we are brought to witness the harsh outcome of individual fate versus historical contingency—hence “eternal regret.”

(p. 73) When transforming this play into a movie, Fei Mu was bound to ask himself: Could the story of Eternal Regret, which was first staged as a patriotic play on the eve of the Second Sino-Japanese War, still mean anything to Chinese audiences after the war? It is at this juncture that Spring in a Small Town offers an ironic counterexample. In the movie, Yuwen and Zhichen were in love before the war broke out. Despite Zhichen’s request that they leave for the hinterland together, Yuwen chose to stay and ended up marrying Liyan. The lovers’ reunion eight years later brings them “regret,” too—regret about failed promise, thwarted passion, and wasted time.

Both cases show the conflicts between morality and passion underlining the changing ethos of the time, and both feature a young woman made to test, and being tested by, the new boundaries of beliefs and values. Whereas Yuniang embodies unwavering loyalism and endurance, Yuwen appears torn between romantic love and marital duty; whereas Yuniang dies a tragic death to consummate her dedication, Yuwen decides to reconcile herself with the status quo.

To be sure, Eternal Regret and Spring in a Small Town are different projects. I suggest nevertheless that they are related like the print of a film and its negative, furnishing the contradictory and complementary sides of a Fei Mu take on Chinese reality. Put these two movies side by side, and one comes to realize that the anti-Japanese war is but the latest of a long succession of calamities in Chinese history, and that individual will, social imperative, and fatal aberration have been as intertwined with each other as ever. Whereas “regret” in Eternal Regret displays the profound terms of the “moral occult” of humanity, it manifests itself in Spring in a Small Town at the most quotidian level of life.

One can easily consider Yuniang a paragon of feminine virtue and frown on Yuwen’s indecisiveness and compromising decision. But the circuitous way in which Yuwen reaches her (non)decision is no less symptomatic of the consequence of war than that which commited Yuniang unconditionally to her loyalism eight hundred years ago. Precisely because of the gap that exists between Yuwen’s and Yuniang’s ways of performing their social and emotional roles, one is led to discern in Spring in a Small Town that “time” changes, and as a result there arises a new sensibility called the “modern.”

Thus the spring of 1948 saw a most fascinating engagement of Chinese cinema with Beijing opera, and filmic vision with poetic illumination. But the story behind the screen was anything but poetic. For instance, since color film called for much brighter lighting, additional electricity generators were brought in to produce enough power for lighting, but they produced such noise as to affect on-site recording. Even Mei Lanfang’s costume had to be replaced, as it caused unexpected reflections under the strong spotlight. When the first footage was test-screened, both Fei and Mei were disappointed by its unstable color. It turned out that the film was developed in the bathtub of the cinematographer’s apartment and that its color varied along with the change of water temperature—which was kept down by ice and therefore rose when the ice melted.

These travails during the shooting period were nothing compared with what happened to the postproduction work. As Mei Lanfang recalled, the screening was disastrous because the color appeared extremely pale because of the use of Ansco color film instead of regular Kodak color film for budgetary reasons. Ansco color was generally (p. 74) used for shooting 16 mm film, and its color runs when it is blown up to 35 mm for commercial showing. Worse, the sound track and the image were not synchronized, a result of unstable voltage during shooting. While the color problem could not be remedied, Fei Mu reedited the film inch by inch in order to make the sound track match the image.34

In any case, Eternal Regret was finally released, but because of the undesirable color quality and the civil war that had engulfed most of China, the first color picture of China did not receive much attention. By then A Spring in a Small Town had already been shown in select cities, and reviews were mostly unfavorable. So for what Fei Mu and Mei Lanfang tried so hard to make, the result was disappointing. Both movies were quickly moved out of sight when the new era came. It would take decades for audiences to rediscover what the two artists had accomplished for Chinese cinema in the spring of 1948.

Works Cited

Aitken, Ian. European Film Theory and Cinema: A Critical Introduction. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001.Find this resource:

    Bray, Francesca. Technology and Gender: Fabrics of Power in Late Imperial China. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997.Find this resource:

      Brooks, Peter. The Melodramatic Imagination: Balzac, Henry James, Melodrama, and the Mode of Excess. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995.Find this resource:

        Chen Huiyang 陳輝揚. Mengying ji: zhongguo dianying yinxiang 夢影集: 中國電影印象 [Dream images: Impressions of Chinese cinema]. Taipei: Yunchen chubanshe, 1990.Find this resource:

          Chen Mo 陳墨. “Fei Mu dianying lun” 費穆電影論 [On Fei Mu’s movies]. Dangdai dianying 當代電影 [Contemporary cinema] 5 (1997): 26–40.Find this resource:

            Chen Mo 陳默. Liuying chunmeng: Fei Mu dianying lungao 流鶯春夢: 費穆電影論稿 [Flying oriel, spring dream: A study of Fei Mu’s movies]. Beijing: Zhongguo dianying chubanshe, 2000.Find this resource:

              Chen Shan 陳山. “Disanzhong dianying: Fei Mu dianying siwei de shuli luoji” 第三種電影: 費穆電影思維的疏離邏輯 [The third kind of movie: The logic of alienation in Fei Mu’s movies]. Dangdai dianying 當代電影 [Contemporary cinema] 5 (1997): 41–47.Find this resource:

                (p. 77) Chen Shan 陳山. “Yongyuan de Xiaocheng zhichun” 永遠的小城之春 [Spring in a Small Town forever]. Beijing dianying xueyuan xuebao 北京電影學院學報 [Journal of the Beijing Film Academy] 1 (2002): 50–58.Find this resource:

                  Daruvala, Susan. “The Aesthetics and Moral Politics of Fei Mu’s Spring in a Small Town.” Journal of Chinese Cinemas 1.3 (2007): 169–185.Find this resource:

                    Ding Yaping 丁亞平. Yingxiang zhongguo: 1945–1949 影像中國: 1945–1949 [Imaging China: 1945–1949]. Beijing: Wenhua yishu chubanshe, 1998.Find this resource:

                      Fei Mu 費穆. “Daoyan, juzuozhe–xiegei Yang Ji” 導演, 劇作者—寫給楊紀 [Director, playwright—to Yang Ji]. Shiren daoyan Fei Mu 詩人導演費穆 [Poet-director Fei Mu]. Ed. Wong Ain-ling. Hong Kong: Xianggang dianying pinlun xuehui, 1999. 99.Find this resource:

                        Fei Mu 費穆. “Fengge mantan” 風格漫談 [Random talk about style]. Shiren daoyan Fei Mu 詩人導演費穆 [Poet-director Fei Mu]. Ed. Wong Ain-ling. Hong Kong: Xianggang dianying pinlun xuehui, 1999. 112–115.Find this resource:

                          Fei Mu. “Guochanpian de chulu wenti” 國產片的出路問題 [On the future of Chinese-made cinema]. Shiren daoyan Fei Mu 詩人導演費穆 [Poet-director Fei Mu]. Ed. Wong Ain-ling. Hong Kong: Xianggang dianying pinlun xuehui, 1999. 94.Find this resource:

                            Fei Mu. “Lüetan ‘kongqi’” 略談 “空氣” [A brief discussion of “air”]. Shiren daoyan Fei Mu 詩人導演費穆 [Poet-director Fei Mu]. Ed. Wong Ain-ling. Hong Kong: Xianggang dianying pinlun xuehui, 1999. 27.Find this resource:

                              Fei Mu. “Shengsihen tekan xuyan” 生死恨特刊序言 [Foreword to the brochure of Eternal Regret]. Shiren daoyan Fei Mu 詩人導演費穆 [Poet-director Fei Mu]. Ed. Wong Ain-ling. Hong Kong: Xianggang dianying pinlun xuehui, 1999. 104.Find this resource:

                                Goldstein, Joshua. Drama Kings: Players and Publics in the Re-creation of Peking Opera, 1870–1937. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007.Find this resource:

                                  Li Cheuk-to 李焯桃. “Yihu zhongguo, chaohu chuantong” 宜乎中國, 超乎傳統 [So Chinese and so untraditional]. Shiren daoyan Fei Mu 詩人導演費穆 [Poet-director Fei Mu]. Ed. Wong Ain-ling. Hong Kong: Xianggang dianying pinlun xuehui, 1999. 294.Find this resource:

                                    Li Lingling 李伶伶. Mei Lanfang de yishu yu qinggang 梅蘭芳的藝術與情感 [The art and romance of Mei Lanfang]. Taipei: Zhibingtang chubanshe, 2008.Find this resource:

                                      Li Shaobai 李少白. “Zhongguo xiandai dianying de qianqu” 中國現代電影的前驅: 論費穆和小城之春的歷史意義 [The forerunner of modern Chinese cinema: On Fei Mu and the historical significance of Spring in a Small Town]. Dianying yishu 電影藝術 [Film art] 1996: no. 5, 34–78.Find this resource:

                                        Li Suyuan 酈蘇元. Zhongguo xiandai dianying lilunshi 中國現代電影理論史 [A history of modern Chinese cinema theories]. Beijing: Wenhua yishu chubanshe, 2005.Find this resource:

                                          Luo Yijun 羅藝軍. “Fei Mu xinlun” 費穆新論 [A new study of Fei Mu]. Dangdai dianying 當代電影 [Contemporary cinema] 5 (1997): 4–15.Find this resource:

                                            Mei Lanfang. “Diyibu caise xiqupian Shengsihen de paishe” 第一部彩色戲曲片生死恨的拍攝 [The making of Eternal Regret, the first color picture in China]. Shiren daoyan Fei Mu 詩人導演費穆 [Poet-director Fei Mu]. Ed. Wong Ain-ling. Hong Kong: Xianggang dianying pinlun xuehui, 1999. 213–236.Find this resource:

                                              Mei Lanfang 梅蘭芳. Yibu bu huanxing 移步不換形 [Moving forward without altering fundamental forms]. Tianjin: Baihua wenyi chubanshe, 2008.Find this resource:

                                                Qi Rushan 齊如山. Qi Rushan huiyilu 齊如山回憶錄 [A memoir of Qi Rushan]. Shenyang: Liaoning jiaoyu chubanshe, 2005.Find this resource:

                                                  Wong Ain-ling 黃愛玲, ed. Shiren daoyan Fei Mu 詩人導演費穆 [Poet-director Fei Mu]. Hong Kong: Xianggang dianying pinlun xuehui, 1999.Find this resource:

                                                    (p. 78) Ying Xiong 應雄. “Xiaocheng zhichun yu dongfang dianying” 小城之春與東方電影 [Spring in a Small Town and Oriental cinema]. Dianying yishu 電影藝術 [Film art] 1993: no. 1, 11–18; no. 2, 46–52.Find this resource:

                                                      Zhang Zhen. An Amorous History of the Silver Screen: Shanghai Cinema, 1896–1937. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.Find this resource:

                                                        Zheng Peikai 鄭培凱. “Xiqu yu dianying de jiuge: Mei Lanfang yu Fei Mu de Shengsihen” 戲曲與電影的糾葛: 梅蘭芳與費穆的《生死恨》 [The entangled relationship between traditional theater and cinema: Mei Lanfang and Fei Mu’s Eternal Regret]. Wenyi lilun yu tongsu wenhua 文藝理論與通俗文化 [Literary theory and popular culture]. Ed. Peng Hsiao-yen 彭小妍. Taipei: Institute of Chinese Literature and Philosophy, 1999. Vol. 2, 570.Find this resource:


                                                          (1.) See Wong Ain-ling’s 黃愛玲 edited volume on Fei Mu, Shiren daoyan Fei Mu 詩人導演費穆 [Poet-director Fei Mu] (Hong Kong: Xianggang dianying pinlun xuehui, 1999).

                                                          (2.) Spring in a Small Town was rediscovered and featured in Hong Kong in 1983. It was celebrated as the first of the ten greatest Chinese movies in a special issue of Dianying shuangzhoukan 電影雙週刊 [Movie biweekly], and it was again voted by movie critics and scholars as the best of the first century of Chinese movies (1905–2005) in Hong Kong. See Chen Huiyang 陳輝揚, Mengying ji: Zhongguo dianying yinxiang 夢影集: 中國電影印象 [Dream images: Impressions of Chinese cinema] (Taipei: Yunchen chubanshe, 1990), 126. Also see “Zhongguo bai da dianying jingdianzuo chulu Wang Jiawei ronghuo babu zuopin ruxuan” 中國百大電影經典作出爐 王家衛榮獲八部作品入選 [The one hundred best movies made in China have been announced; eight of Wong Kar-wai’s movies are included], in Yingyin tai 影音台 [Kingnet]; Li Cheuk-to 李焯桃, “Yihu Zhongguo, chaohu chuantong” 宜乎中國, 超乎傳統 [So Chinese and so untraditional], in Wong Ain-ling, Poet-Director Fei Mu, 294.

                                                          (3.) Li Suyuan 酈蘇元, Zhongguo xiandai dianying lilunshi 中國現代電影理論史 [A history of modern Chinese cinema theories] (Beijing: Wenhua yishu chubanshe, 2005), 162–178. Among the trumpeters of Peking opera as “national opera,” Qi Rushan 齊如山 is the most prominent figure. See Qi Rushan 齊如山, Qi Rushan huiyilu 齊如山回憶錄 [A memoir of Qi Rushan] (Shenyang: Liaoning jiaoyu chubanshe, 2005), chaps. 7–8. For critique of Qi Rushan’s notion of “national drama,” see Joshua Goldstein’s succinct analysis in Drama Kings: Players and Publics in the Re-creation of Peking Opera, 1870–1937 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007), chap. 4.

                                                          (4.) Throughout his career Fei Mu was occupied with the question of how to make a Chinese movie that highlights its national character. See, for example, his 1950 essay “Fengge mantan” 風格漫談 [Random talk about style], in Wong Ain-ling, Poet-Director Fei Mu, 112–115.

                                                          (5.) See Zhang Zhen, An Amorous History of the Silver Screen: Shanghai Cinema, 1896–1937 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), chap. 3.

                                                          (7.) Fei Mu, “Lüetan ‘kongqi’” 略談 “ 空氣 ” [A brief discussion of “air”], in Wong Ain-ling, Poet-Director Fei Mu, 27.

                                                          (8.) Fei Mu, “Brief Discussion of ‘Air,’” 27.

                                                          (9.) Fei Mu, “Brief Discussion of ‘Air,’” 27.

                                                          (10.) Fei Mu, “Zaxie,” in Wong Ain-ling, Poet-Director Fei Mu, 29.

                                                          (11.) I am borrowing Peter Brooks’s terminology, in The Melodramatic Imagination: Balzac, Henry James, Melodrama, and the Mode of Excess (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), chap. 1.

                                                          (12.) Chen Mo 陳默, Liuying chunmeng: Fei Mu dianying lungao 流鶯春夢: 費穆電影論稿 [Flying oriel, spring dream: A study of Fei Mu’s movies] (Beijing: Zhongguo dianying chubanshe, 2000), chap. 9.

                                                          (15.) Chen Mo, Flying Oriel, Spring Dream, chap. 10, especially 129–132.

                                                          (17.) Mei starred in fourteen movies based on Peking opera. See Li Lingling 李伶伶, Mei Lanfang de yishu yu qinggang 梅蘭芳的藝術與情感 [The art and romance of Mei Lanfang] (Taipei: Zhibingtang chubanshe, 2008), 198–212.

                                                          (18.) Mei Lanfang 梅蘭芳, Yibu bu huanxing 移步不換形 [Moving forward without altering fundamental forms] (Tianjin: Baihua wenyi chubanshe, 2008), 226–252. For Mei Lanfang’s tour to the United States, see Joshua Goldstein, Drama Kings, particularly chapter 8.

                                                          (21.) Fei Mu, “Shengsihen tekan xuyan” 生死恨特刊序言 [Foreword to the brochure of Eternal Regret], in Wong Ain-ling, Poet-Director Fei Mu, 104.

                                                          (22.) The famous “nocturnal soliloquy” (夜訴) scene, for instance, is cast in blue, while the scene of the dream reunion is dominated by red.

                                                          (23.) See Zheng Peikai 鄭培凱, “Xiqu yu dianying de jiuge: Mei Lanfang yu Fei Mu de Shengsihen” 戲曲與電影的糾葛: 梅蘭芳與費穆的《生死恨》[The entangled relationship between traditional theater and cinema: Mei Lanfang and Fei Mu’s Eternal Regret], in Wenyi lilun yu tongsu wenhua 文藝理論與通俗文化 [Literary theory and popular culture], ed. Peng Hsiao-yen 彭小妍 (Taipei: Institute of Chinese Literature and Philosophy, 1999), vol. 2, 570 n. 30.

                                                          (24.) See Francesca Bray, Technology and Gender: Fabrics of Power in Late Imperial China (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), chaps. 4–5.

                                                          (25.) But the recognition of Spring in a Small Town came as late as the 1980s. The eclipse of the movie from the late forties to the early eighties and its belated “rehabilitation” bespeak the dynamics of Chinese cinema on both aesthetic and political fronts.

                                                          (26.) Fei Mu, “Guochanpian de chulu wenti” 國產片的出路問題 [On the future of Chinese-made cinema], in Wong Ain-ling, Poet-Director Fei Mu, 94.

                                                          (27.) Fei Mu, “Future of Chinese-Made Cinema,” 94.

                                                          (28.) For discussions of Spring in a Small Town, see Li Shaobai 李少白, “Zhongguo xiandai dianying de qianqu: Lun Fei Mu he Xiaocheng zhichun de lishi yiyi” 中國現代電影的前驅: 論費穆和小城之春的歷史意義 [The forerunner of modern Chinese cinema: On Fei Mu and the historical significance of Spring in a Small Town], Dianying yishu 電影藝術 [Cinematic art] 5 (1996), 34–78; Ying Xiong 應雄, “Xiaocheng zhichun yu dongfang dianying” 小城之春與東方電影 [Spring in a Small Town and Oriental cinema], Cinematic Art 1.2 (1993): 11–18, 46–52; Luo Yijun 羅藝軍, “Fei Mu xinlun” 費穆新論 [A new study of Fei Mu], Dangdai dianying 當代電影 [Contemporary cinema] 5 (1997): 4–15; Chen Mo 陳墨, “Fei Mu dianying lun” 費穆電影論 [On Fei Mu’s movies], Contemporary Cinema 5 (1997): 26–40; Chen Shan 陳山, “Disanzhong dianying: Fei Mu dianying siwei de shuli luoji” 第三種電影: 費穆電影思維的疏離邏輯 [The third kind of movie: The logic of alienation in Fei Mu’s movies], Contemporary Cinema 5 (1997): 41–47; and Chen Shan 陳山, “Yongyuan de Xiaocheng zhichun” 永遠的小城之春 [Spring in a small town forever], Beijing dianying xueyuan xuebao 北京電影學院學報 [Journal of the Beijing Film Academy] 1 (2002): 50–58. Also see Susan Daruvala, “The Aesthetics and Moral Politics of Fei Mu’s Spring in a Small Town,” Journal of Chinese Cinemas 1.3 (2007): 169–185.

                                                          (29.) Fei Mu, “Daoyan, juzuozhe–xiegei Yang Ji” 導演, 劇作者—寫給楊紀 [Director, playwright—to Yang Ji], in Wong Ain-ling, Poet-Director Fei Mu, 99.

                                                          (30.) Li Cheuk-to, “So Chinese and So Untraditional,” 282.

                                                          (31.) Ding Yaping 丁亞平, Yingxiang zhongguo: 1945–1949 影像中國: 1945–1949 [Imaging China: 1945–1949] (Beijing: Wenhua yishu chubanshe, 1998), 374–376. For a general introduction to Bazin’s cinematic aesthetics, see Ian Aitken, European Film Theory and Cinema: A Critical Introduction (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001), chap. 7, particularly 179–193.

                                                          (33.) In Lin Niantong’s words again, the movie relies heavily on the perspective of “horizontal distance” (平遠), a key notion of spatial composition in classical Chinese painting, to show a broad, embracing approach to reality. But this “horizontal distance” does not promise a placid, detached view any more than it calls forth an internal dynamics composed by montage, dissolves, and other techniques.

                                                          (34.) Mei Lanfang, “Diyibu caise xiqupian Shengsihen de paishe” 第一部彩色戲曲片生死恨的拍攝 [The making of Eternal Regret, the first color picture in China], in Wong Ain-ling, Poet-Director Fei Mu, 213–236.