Seen in 2014, it's hard to appreciate just how progressive and utterly 'contemporary' this film was. The story on which it is based had just been published, and the topic, unlike the escapist entertainment of time, was a matter of immediate urgency. The village of silkworm growers was, in effect, a microcosm of the nation, showing the deleterious effects of imperialism, war, usury and their own superstitions and doggedly conservative resistance to the tide of modernity.
The immediate background to the film is as follows: In the early thirties, the Jiangnan silk industry (in particular, in the counties of Zhejiang, Hangzhou, Hubei and Hunan) was in great danger. It had to compete with inflation, Japanese imports, competition from foreign fabrics, high interest rates and other market forces that could be manipulated by exploitative capitalists.
This film was one of the first Leftist films to be produced. Though it bears elements of typical melodramas, at heart it was an enormous break from tradition. As such, it was quite a courageous experiment. (Incidentally, it didn't do very well at the box office when first released, but was highly praised by the Communist party when it came to power.) The film is sometimes almost documentary in style, like a Chinese Robert Flaherty, especially when it concentrates the camera on the details of silk production. At other times, the fluid camera movements recall the work of Murnau. As a mixture of genres, it's hard to say whether it is successful or not. Is it a documentary about the national condition that has been personalised through the lens of a single village or is it a socially-aware fiction? I think it succeeds more as the first. It's tone, even in spite of the dramatic aspects, is simple and unadorned. Through one story, that of an impoverished village, it thrusts forward that of China itself, impoverished and humiliated by foreign exploitation, military attack, and by its own superstitions and resistance to the modernisation of its industries.
Seeing it now, seventy years later, its historical import is obvious. 'Spring Silkworms' encapsulated so many of the problems plaguing Republican China and stands as a valuable historical document. As such, it retains an important humane aspect, firmly rooted in reality, an aspect long lost by the more propagandistic films that Chinese leftists produced later when further radicalised by a worsening national situation.
Text adapted from IMDB (spoilers removed).