Chinese Cinema Through a Communist Lens

From Red River Valley

Facets two-DVD package, Chinese Cinema Through a Communist Len, provides potent, if minimal, representations of an era of Chinese filmmaking rarely seen in the US.

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.

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