Taking place in a ruined family compound after the war, the film tells the story of the once prosperous Dai family. The husband and patriarch, Dai Liyan is an invalid, and spends his days in the courtyard nostalgic for the past. His marriage to Zhou Yuwen has long been rendered loveless, though both still feel concern for the other. Liyan’s young teenage sister Dai Xiu, meanwhile, is too young to remember the past, and stays cheerful and playful in the ruins of her home. Into this dreary but unchanging existence comes Liyan’s childhood friend Zhang Zhichen, a doctor from Shanghai and a former flame of Zhou Yuwen before she ever met her husband. The rest of the film details Zhou Yuwen’s conflicting emotions between her love for Zhang, and her loyalty to her husband and his family.
From the new Chinese restoration released by the BFI
China 1948 | Black and White | 93 mins
Cast: Wei Wei, Shi Yu, Li Wei, Zhang Hongmei
Regarded as the finest work from the first great era of Chinese filmmaking, Fei Mu’s quiet, piercingly poignant study of adulterous desire and guilt-ridden despair – now restored – is a remarkable rediscovery.
After eight years of marriage to Liyan – once rich but now sickly and almost suicidally apathetic following a long, ruinous war – Yuwen feels so drained that she too does little except mutely deliver his daily medication. Suddenly, a surprise visit from Liyan’s doctor friend Zhang re-energises the household, the invalid included. His teenage sister is not alone in her excitement over the much-travelled guest; Yuwen knew him before her marriage… Eliciting a superb performance from Wei Wei as Yuwen, whose pained voiceover offers insights into her conflicted feelings, Fei creates a tense, sensual chamberwork steeped in suspicion and suppressed longing, deep resentments and half-spoken truths. The metaphorical use of objects and locations, the telling camera movements and frequent dissolves make for a fraught, febrile mood of hesitant passion, entrapment and ennui; psychologically and cinematically sophisticated, the film eschews sentimentality to offer something far more beguiling. – Geoff Andrew