Films about small towns reflect changing times and ideals

By GUO XIAODAN / 06-10-2020 / (Chinese Social Sciences Today)

From left to right are the posters of Spring in a Small Town directed by Fei Mu before reform and opening up, Still Life by Jia Zhangke after reform and opening up, and Kaili Blues by Bi Gan in the new era. Photo: FILE


In 1984, renowned Chinese sociologist Fei Xiaotong published the article “Small Towns, Big Problems,” in which he suggested developing enterprises invested in by rural collective economic organizations or farmers in small towns, so as to ease the problem of labor surplus in rural areas.

Thirty years later, the CPC Central Committee and the State Council announced National New-type Urbanization Planning (2014–2020), calling for efforts to coordinate the development of big and medium-sized cities and small towns. As a cradle for rural collective enterprises, small towns have gradually occupied a significant position in national strategic planning.

According to the concept of the “national allegory” proposed by Marxist theorist Fredric Jameson, the story of the private individual destiny in texts from third-world countries is always an allegory of the embattled situation of the public culture and society. The film is a form of artistic expression that links up national grand narrative and individual microcosmic life. It is a kind of national allegory based on individual experience. Representing life in small towns, films that showcase people’s living situations and spiritual changes amid social transformation and the development of small towns are an important channel for people to seek reflections of themselves and build a sense of identity.


Closed hometowns
China had already produced excellent films about small towns back in the 1940s, such as Spring in a Small Town directed by Fei Mu. Later, The Lin Family Shop directed by Shui Hua in the 1950s and Early Spring in February by Xie Tieli in the 1960s were also set in small towns.

From the 40s to the 60s, the Chinese economy was still dominated by agriculture. Small towns were basically places for trading agricultural products and crafts. As market towns for surrounding villages, towns served as fledging commercial spaces in the countryside.

In early films, small towns were all poetic, whether representing worldly life or decadence as a result of warfare. The story of The Lin Family Shop, for example, takes place in a small town in Jiangnan, the area south of the Yangtze River, opening with water flowing beneath a small bridge and boats rocking on the water. Looking back based on the present, small towns in the films of this period were represented as historical spaces filled with nostalgia.

To sum up, films on small towns before reform and opening up have three characteristics. First, people in small towns lived a social life unique to the rural society of the time. It was a society of acquaintances. In Early Spring in February, Mr. Xiao, a new non-local, receives much attention from residents in the small town. In a community still ridden with gossip, rumors and slander, Mr. Xiao becomes a hot topic because he has helped a widow. 

Second, small towns in the films are depicted as a poetic homeland. All of the abovementioned directors had left their hometowns for personal growth, so they translated their homesickness into cozy yet decadent small towns in the films.

Moreover, the filmmakers were critical of the insularity of small towns. In Spring in a Small Town, the protagonist Dai Liyan and his wife live enclosed by the collapsed city wall and the wall of their ruined courtyard, besieged both materially and spiritually. In Early Spring in February, although there is an open window in most scenes, the primary school teachers and residents of the small town are trapped in a closeminded “iron house.” 

With the allegoric symbols of collapsed walls and open windows, the filmmakers showed complex feelings toward their hometowns, interweaving serious criticism with fervent expectations. They were critical and irreverent while sentimentally attached to their homeland and pinning their hopes on it.


Unfinished ideals
From the 1990s to the early 21st century, films centering on small towns were aired in abundance. Representative works of the period include famed director Jia Zhangke’s Xiao Wu, Platform and Still Life, Zhang Ming’s Cloud and Rain Over Mount Wu, and Gu Changwei’s Peacock.

While commercial films represented by Zhang Yimou’s Hero flourished, works about small towns became increasingly artistic and were enjoyed more by small audiences. This period was a crucial time for the transformation and development of small towns. As hubs of rural modernization, small towns went through a difficult transformation in which the traditional and the modern converged and collided. Therefore, small towns in most films of this period show a state of being under construction.

Films of this period also have three salient features. First, they display the basic landscape of transformation. Due to the reconstruction of public spaces, construction waste, industrial debris and half-dismantled buildings appear from time to time in Still Life. In the development stage transitioning from traditional to modern, there are various “fashionable” venues for entertainment in Xiao Wu, such as karaoke bars and billiard rooms. Incomplete demolition, reconstruction and fashion projects signal that small towns are undergoing the transition from rustic to metropolitan.

Second, most characters in the films are marginalized in society, such as coal miners, peddlers and even thieves. Amid the changing times, these nobody characters cherish their own unrealistic illusions, only later to be disillusioned. In Peacock, the heroine Gao Weihong’s dream of becoming a paratrooper is shattered, so she ties a bed sheet to the back seat of a bicycle as a parachute as homage.

In addition, with small ruin-strewn towns as an allegoric space, these films carry the spiritual ideals of small-town youth while reflecting the life experiences and spiritual worldviews of the filmmakers themselves and many ordinary people during social transformation. As the final scene of a peacock spreading its tails in Peacock indicates, people were stuck in a rut and felt at a loss in their as yet unfinished ideal homes, but they hoped for a better tomorrow all the same.


Rare in new era
In recent years, the model of globalization has penetrated all parts of the world. Such strategies as “rural revitalization” and “new type of urbanization” have also gained ground in China. In this context, small towns have evolved from closed rural areas into what sociologist Manuel Castells called a space of flows. Highly liquid capital and mobile resources and population have revolutionized small towns, and injected them with new vigor.

Small towns are no longer just market places for villages and appendages to big cities. They are not merely a bond between cities and the countryside. The agglomeration of high-tech industries, the popularization of cultural consumption and the booming of tourism have turned small towns into important nodes in the global network.

As Chinese President Xi Jinping pointed out, the construction of the new type of urbanization should put the urbanization of people at the core. People are vital to the development of small towns, which is captured well by the art form of film.

According to Thomas Schatz, a professor in the Radio-Television-Film Department at the University of Texas in Austin, the film is an art form that aids the public in defining quickly changing social realities along with their significance.

At present, however, films that can mirror the real life of small towns are decreasing. Ash is Purest White directed by Jia Zhangke and Kaili Blues by Bi Gan are outstanding works set in small towns. However, such films have become increasingly niche with obscure content and a reminiscent tone.
Furthermore, the current Chinese film market is inundated with local flavors. Apart from stories about glamorous metropolitan life, exoticism set in India, Thailand and New Zealand is growing. Nonetheless, these films mostly rest on superficial local portrayals. The philosophical interpretation of the underlying real life has yet to unfold. Some other films focus only on dramatic plotting, failing to highlight meaningful spaces.

In general, small towns are absent in the current film market, though they have always been valuable to filmmaking. Whether interweaving criticism with nostalgia or exploring confusion in ideals, films of this kind can reflect people’s rich sentiments toward small towns and their changes. At present, life in small towns has changed profoundly. As such, films in the new era are expected to redefine and re-delineate them. 


Guo Xiaodan is from the School of Communication at Soochow University in Jiangsu Province.

edited by CHEN MIRONG