Chinese Cinema Through a Communist Lens

[6 January 2011]

By Michael Buening

In the Red

The non-profit organization Facets Multi-Media is a great distribution source for foreign films that aren’t schmaltzy enough to be released by big US studios or acclaimed enough for Criterion. The two DVDs released as the package Chinese Cinema Through A Communist Lens, provides potent, if minimal, representations of an era of Chinese filmmaking rarely seen in the United States.

The two movies book end the first 50 years of Communist China’s history. New Year Sacrifice was released in 1956 at the high point of Mao’s reign in 1956, and Red River Valley came out in 1996, when capitalist reforms were well under way and studios were trying to make money by appealing to a wide audience.

The quality of the transfers on the DVDs are lousy, unfortunately, and appear to have been made from a local television broadcast associated with the City University of New York. The sole extra feature is an introduction by David Buckley whose company, China Century Entertainment, imports Chinese films to the US, but they are sorely lacking in any contextual information that would be of use to the viewer.

For example on New Year Sacrifice Buckley briefly mentions the women’s rights issues in the storyline, but he doesn’t mention how this corresponded to what was happening in China at the time. This is a shame, because this is by far the most interesting movie of the two, as a piece of artwork and for what it reveals about the film system and political culture it came from.

The first movies produced in Communist China were devoted to “revolutionary realism”, a brand of propaganda popular in the Soviet Union and other emerging communist states that praised socialism, the people/peasants, and the military. In China this included movies that promoted the vital role of women in the communist revolution, as in Xie Jin’s The Red Detachment of Women. Revolutionary realism established the present as modern and forward thinking, and the future was painted with bright strokes.

In 1956, Mao launched his “Hundred Flowers” policy, which encouraged self-criticism and more openness compared to the previous era. Filmmakers were encouraged to look towards international filmmaking while simultaneously developing a more “Chinese” cinema, freeing themselves from the strictures of Soviet-style agitprop.

New Year Sacrifice was released in 1956, as these changes were happening. It was taken to film festivals in Czechoslovakia and Mexico. It celebrates and is critical of folk traditions of Buddhism and the Chinese New Year. The plot, a melodrama about an exploited peasant woman, is taken from a short story by Lu Xun, a modernist and early anti-imperialist who was a favorite writer of Mao Zedong.

However, where earlier films frequently celebrated women as revolutionary leaders, here the protagonist is a tragic victim. New Year Sacrifice does not point forward towards the Communist revolution but criticizes the earlier societal system that led to it and has aged slightly better for avoiding overt didactics.

Bai Yang plays the nameless heroine, a young widow whose relatives sell her to a mountain farmer as his wife. She fiercely resists, but the farmer (Wei Heling) turns out to be gentle and kind with her. They establish a successful household and have a son. This happiness is soon shattered when the son and husband die and the woman is saddled with the household debts.

She moves back to her village and works as help for the aristocratic Lu household, who view her as a “white tiger”, unlucky to anything she touches. She saves all of her money to make the titular sacrifice to a Buddhist temple, believing it will relieve her of her “sins”. The Lu family rejects the sacrifice, and throws her out of the house, she goes mad and wanders the town and countryside until her death.

The presentation of the story is fairly staid. Shots are often static, relying on straightforward compositions that give the viewer a watching-it-as-a-play feel. Besides one pace quickening montage, I missed the more dynamic editing and framing techniques adopted from the Soviets.

Yet, despite the lousy transfer, there are some beautiful elements within the shots, particularly in the New Year scenes, where the red colors pop amid the silver finery of the Lu’s rich household. Here the traditions and nostalgia of holidays are captured as well as any Hollywood movie of the ‘30s and sets up a nice dichotomy between the affection in the presentation and the simultaneous criticism of the superstitious society for which the woman serves as a sacrifice.

Classic Hollywood filmmaking techniques are also used in the close-ups of the heroine, reminiscent of silent movies in their intensity. Bai Yang’s performance elevates the movie above standard melodrama. She is very good with the physical shifts as her body changes with age and ages faster due to harshness of her life. Throughout the film, whether bashing her head at the wedding ceremony or working in the Lu’s household, she captures the complex eddy of her character’s emotions that eventually veers out of control.

Though the writer Lu Xun criticized Chinese society of the early 20th century, he did not unquestionably embrace the Communist system that replaced it. He was a liberal and was championed by the Communist party, but never joined himself. In his original short story, a periphery character relates the heroine’s tale. The primary affect is to make the reader a part of the society being criticized and to encourage them to think about the inequities of this society.

Sentimentalizing Ethnic Minorities

This movie adaptation is told from the point of view of the woman and encourages identification with her against the others. The movie adds a postscript, apparently without irony: “It happened long ago! We are lucky that times like that are gone for good. Such things have gone forever.”

By 1997, when Red River Valley was released, the Chinese film system had been cut off from state sponsorship and opened to the whims of capitalism. The studios had to struggle to reach a mass audience to finance their movies. One way to do this was to pander to their audience in a manner not too dissimilar from the propaganda of early Communist China. Red River Valley is shamelessly hackneyed material that plays on a society’s ingrained stereotypes and myths, elevated by an occasional triumph of craftsmanship.

Its story is a kind of Chinese Dances with Wolves, an historical frontier epic with Tibet standing in for the Native Americans. Once again, in his introduction, David Buckley misses the opportunity to discuss the relationship between Tibet and China and the way the majority Han Chinese have tended to sentimentalize the ethnic minorities in their country.

The story’s grand scope and its many characters allows it to touch on some interesting themes, which combines history and folk tales to discuss greed and prejudice at the turn of the twentieth century. It opens with several action scenes. A young Han woman named Snow Dawa (Ning Jing) is about to be sacrificed to a river god, but escapes and is rescued by an old Tibetan woman. While recuperating in the old woman’s yurt-like house, she falls in love with a wild horseman named Dewang (Shao Bing).

Meanwhile, two British explorers are almost killed in an avalanche, but are rescued by the villagers in a Tibetan fortress. One of them, the interpreter Jones (Paul H. Newman), stays with the Tibetans to study their lifestyle. The other, Colonel Rockman (Nicholas Love), returns later with an army to crush Tibet in the name of the empire. Snow Dawa and Dewang get caught up in the struggle.

The script, the acting, and the presentation are frequently ham-fisted throughout. As one character dies in battle he gasps, “War. Should you and I have been friends?” Some of the filmmaking is crude, as in the obvious use of stock footage in the avalanche scene. (This might be unfair for a movie with a budget significantly less than the typical Zhang Yimou production. And some of the nature photography is lovely.) There are serious continuity errors. There is the sense that the plot, based on a book by Peter Fleming, tried to cram in too many epic strands with disjointed and confusing results.

The British attempt at conquering Tibet is portrayed as an impossible Western dream. Jones says, “This immense land behind us is the Orient which we shall never conquer.” (This line comes at the end and appears to also serve as a good riddance and “screw you” before the British handed Hong Kong back to China in 1997.) The movie is good on criticizing the hypocrisy of the British Empire, the way they used talk of “freedom” to justify themselves to the peoples that they conquered. The well-meaning Jones is dangerously naïve. He talks of “a pure innocence, a harmony between man and nature, a kind of freedom, an unchained beauty” of the Tibetans but is unable to help them in any tangible way.

However, overall the movie treats the Tibetans with a mixture of condescending bemusement and cheap mystical reverence. Dewang is almost a simpleton. The British and Han characters laugh and shake their heads at Buddhist and folk traditions and the use of folk stories often have a bogus New Age sheen.

There are notable similarities between Snow Dawa and the heroine of New Year Sacrifice. They are both sacrifices to a brutal and superstitious societal system and they fight hard to avoid their fate. The most resonant line of dialogue in Red River comes when Snow Dawa says, “In my next life I want to be a pig or a dog. I don’t want to be a girl again.”

However, as in New Year Sacrifice, the societal criticism in Red River Valley points firmly at an “other” and never at the self. The filmmakers go to great pains to conflate China and Tibet as simpatico cultures unified against the West. That China might have replaced Britain as a colonizer and threat to Tibet goes unmentioned.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/135302-chinese-cinema-through-a-communist-lens/