When Chinese cinema is discussed, there’s a lot of love shared for this little film, a sort of proto-neo-realist take on Chinese peasantry via the medium of what is outwardly a melodramatic story of a three-way love affair. It wasn’t at all successful when released, but has since come to be seen as a key text, encapsulating through its beautifully subtle staging all the potential pitfalls of its story with far from the expected restraint but rather a bold acknowledgment of all its erotic potentials. Which isn’t to say it’s a bodice-ripper, just that it has the kind of candour you might naïvely think wouldn’t be present in this era and setting, a bombed-out rural house (calling it a village wouldn’t do justice to the fact that no one else aside from the four central household figures is even glimpsed). Here, following the war, Liyan (Shi Yu) recuperates from an unspecified illness, and with his young sister is looked after by his patient wife Yuwen (Wei Wei). An attractive doctor, Zhichen (Li Wei), arrives at the home, and it turns out he and the wife had some previous history, memory of which is provoked by his reappearance. There are no bad guys or overt judgements made on this three-way relationship, but as it unfolds — in scenes at the dilapidated house, and at some nearby ruined fortifications (a sort of objective correlative to her own heart, perhaps) — we get a sense of how conflicted Yuwen feels about Zhichen’s arrival and about her own husband. It’s such a small and minutely-observed drama that it can sometimes seem as if little is happening, but its slowly-unfolding and underdramatised style gradually grows on the viewer. If it doesn’t seem to me like the kind of masterpiece it’s often acclaimed as, that’s probably as much due to my own weariness when I saw it as anything else, and I have no doubt it would reward repeat viewing.
Director Fei Mu 費穆; Writer Li Tianji 李天濟 (based on a short story); Cinematographer Li Shengwei 李生偉; Starring Wei Wei 韦伟, Li Wei 李纬, Shi Yu 石羽; Length 93 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Friday 27 June 2014.