The non-profit organization Facets 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 provide potent, if minimal, representations of an era of Chinese filmmaking rarely seen in the United States.
The two films bookend the first 50 years of Communist China’s history. Hu Sang’s New Year Sacrifice (Zhu Fu) was released in 1956 at the high point of Mao’s reign in 1956, and Xiaoning Feng’s Red River Valley (Hong he gu) was released in 1996 when capitalist reforms were well underway, and studios were trying to make money by appealing to a wide audience.
The quality of the transfers on the DVDs is lousy, unfortunately, and appears 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 useful 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 film 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 films 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 films promoting women’s vital role in the communist revolution, as in Xie Jin’s The Red Detachment of Women (1961). 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 than in 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 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 toward 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) is gentle and kind. 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 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 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 New Year Sacrifice‘s story is fairly staid. Shots are often static, relying on straightforward compositions that give viewers 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 in any Hollywood film 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 films in their intensity. Bai Yang’s performance elevates New Year Sacrifice above standard melodrama. She is very good with the physical shifts as her body changes with age and ages faster due to the 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 the Chinese society of the early 20th century, he did not unquestionably embrace the Communist system that replaced it. He was a liberal championed by the Communist party but never joined. A periphery character in his original short story relates the heroine’s tale. The primary effect 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
New Year Sacrifice is told from the woman’s point of view and encourages identification with her against the others. The film 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 struggled to reach a mass audience to finance their films. 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, a historical frontier epic with Tibetans standing in for the Native Americans. Once again, in his introduction, Buckley misses the opportunity to discuss the relationship between Tibet and China and how the majority of Han Chinese have tended to sentimentalize the ethnic minorities in their country.
Red River Valley’s grand scope and many characters allow it to touch on some interesting themes, combining history and folk tales to discuss greed and prejudice at the turn of the 20th 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.
Red River Valley‘s 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 film with a budget significantly less than the typical Zhang Yimou production. And some of the nature photography is lovely.) However, 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 o Red River Valley and appears to serve as “good riddance” and “screw you” before the British handed Hong Kong back to China in 1997.) The film is good at criticizing the hypocrisy of the British Empire, the way they used to talk of “freedom” to justify themselves to the people 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 cannot help them in any tangible way.
However, Red River Valley treats the Tibetans with 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 has 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.