And now the latest in my irregular series: Man, Communist Governments Hate Good Movies.

For a very brief span of time following the end of World War II, China enjoyed a cinematic golden age; like so many countries that got heavily dicked-over by the biggest combatants (and it's arguable, I think, that China's decade of getting raped by Japan was the worst thing that any country suffered during the war years), the end of combat left a generation of artists ready to deal with their trauma in extraordinary new movements which in some cases revolutionised artistic language, and in others merely perfected the forms that had gone before. In the particular case of China, this resulted in a film that's still regularly cited as the best film produced in that country's history: Spring in a Small Town, directed by one Fei Mu, who had produced only a small handful of movies in the '30s and would direct nothing after 1948.

Dealing with the aftermath of the war in the person of a traditionally staid woman who discovers that her proper life is hiding bottomless desires and passions which almost manifest themselves in a taboo-shattering love affair, the story immediately calls to mind David Lean's Brief Encounter, which uses the same metaphor to explore life in post-war Britain (other than theme and the fact that both are tremendously great films, not much connects the two; but when have I ever been able to pass up mentioning Brief Encounter?). Spring in a Small Town is about Yuwen (Wei Wei), a youngish woman married to a man she's never really loved, Dai Liyan (Shi Yu), who suffers from perpetual health problems. They live with Liyan's young sister Dai Xiu (Zhang Hongmei) and the family's old servant Lao Huang (Cui Chaoming), in the ruins of what used to be a beautiful home in a nice town, whose old grandeur is seen only in the crumbling remains of the city wall, where Yuwen likes to walk alone to clear her mind and remember the old days.

Into this torpid life, there arrives one day an old friend of Liyan's, Zhang Zhichen (Li Wei), a medical doctor. To Yuwen's horror and delight, it turns out that he's an old friend of hers, too - and apparently, back before she ever met her husband, she and Zhichen had a bit of a fling going. Over the course of the next few days, while their guest stays in the detached remains of what used to be a very nice den, she is directly confronted with how joyless her life has become, growing increasingly unable to hide her dissatisfaction from her ailing husband. Zhichen apparently notices as well, given that he starts to make overtures towards Yuwen, that maybe she'd be happier running off to places unknown with him.

It's a tremendously modest narrative, but produced with such precision and sensitivity to stand as a timeless masterpiece - maybe not The Best Chinese Film Ever (of course, I haven't seen one-hundredth of the films I'd need to to make anything like an informed comment on that topic), but extraordinary in any case. There was just one problem: though it aches with humanity and the hatred of the ravages of war and the desire to find a better life somewhere on the horizon, it doesn't make anything remotely like a political argument. So one year after its debut, when Mao Zedong led the Communists to victory in the Chinese Civil War, Spring in a Small Town was branded, idiotically, as a reactionary work of art, and thereupon banished to the vault where all counter-revolutionary materials were sent to rot and wither. Never mind that it contains more artistry in one cut than all the tepid propaganda films that predated the rise of the Fifth Generation in the 1980s combined (okay, so I've seen like two of them, but they both sucked). And for many decades, it sat there.

Eventually, the '80s rolled around, bringing an unexpected freedom to Chinese cinema, and that included a new interest in the country's officially-ignored cinematic heritage. Which led to the rediscovery of Spring in a Small Town and its recognition as one of the world's great works of post-war '40s cinema. Admittedly, all of the surviving prints of this truly vital film look a bit like they were run over by a truck, but it is generally the case that when a film should not survive at all, you do not complain that it has not survived in pristine condition.

And even in its degraded modern form, Spring in a Small Town is a revelation to those of us accustomed to thinking that Chinese film as an art form began with Chen Kaige. Simply put, it is one of the most delicate, subtly moving stories of domestic suffering that has ever been put to film, starting at its across-the-board wonderful set of performances to its imagery, a tableau of life flickering around the edges of decay and rubble (the spring promised in the title is altogether ironic). The film occassionally errs on the side of too much loaded symbolism, particularly in the figure of Xiu, too young to remember the days before the war and filled with oblivious optimism, but for the most part it works just as well as a human drama as a social one: virtually flawlessly in both cases. Like Brief Encounter, it could easily frustrate those who like things to happen in their movies; it is paced with a slowness to rival Tarkovsky. But that is, after all, the pace of life in a dying small town, and for the film to bubble along melodramatically would be disingenuous.

Beyond that, Fei's command of cinema is exemplary, and it strikes me as a tragedy that he produced so few films (none of which are available in the US besides this one, if indeed any of them survive). Ironically, his style seems almost a combination of two of the greatest Japanese filmmakers: he brings together Mizoguchi's fluid camera movements with Ozu's genius for space within the frame. The camera always moves in lines that are dictated by the geometry of the place where the scene is set, and the way those settings are shot usually emphasises their edges, such the characters are perpetually hemmed in and herded into ever-collapsing boxes. When someone bursts in from off-camera, it's shocking: everything else in the film is focused on denying the existence of off-camera space.

Visually, then Spring in a Small Town is concerned mainly with the creation of existential panic: what you see is all there is, which obviously ties in nicely with the concerns of the protagonist. It is not a pleasant film - everyone in the story suffers to some degree or another and nobody is antagonistic or a villain; if there is an enemy in the film, that enemy is The Way The World Works, Circa 1948. It is suffocating, and Fei makes the audience suffocate along with the characters through his ominous mise en scène: this makes the few moments when the narrative or the visuals open up all the sweeter. Not for everyone, certainly, but it is quiet and beautiful for those with a little patience and the will to put themselves into a place that most Westerners, for a start, probably haven't every really thought about before.