“Where to Invade Next” - Michael Moore (2015)

Michael Moore’s Where to Invade Next (2015) is another one of his personal cinematic essays about American society, but it has some distinguishing features that make it stand out among his oeuvre.  First of all, despite the acclaim that a number of his earlier films have received (Bowling for Columbine (2002) was a US Oscar winner and Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) was a Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or winner and is the highest-grossing documentary film of all time), I would say that Where to Invade Next is perhaps Moore’s most polished and well-crafted film.  A second distinguishing feature is the relentlessly upbeat nature of the film.  Although Moore’s narrative tone has always been mostly soft-spoken and congenial, he has nevertheless generally made films that have been critical of perceived flaws of US society.  On this occasion in Where to Invade Next, though, he is purposefully positive throughout.

Even so, there are a number of critics (and also people at large) who always defensively hate Michael Moore for his presumed unfair and “incorrect” depictions of the US, and accordingly, they hate Where to Invade Next, as well [1,2].  To get a clearer view of where some of this hatred comes from, it is perhaps best for me to quote some material from my review of Moore’s earlier and superb documentary SiCKO (2007) [3]:
Documentary films are supposed to expose the “truth” about some subject. Inspired by the demonstrated success of Western empirical science, a good documentary film is supposed to lay bare the objective facts of a situation, so that a judicious and unprejudiced viewer can see objective reality and arrive at the truth. This is in direct contrast with propaganda films, a label that Moore's rabid critics attach to his films, which display a willingness to distort the facts in an effort to persuade the viewer on some point. In ever-more-strenuous efforts to get at the underlying truth of a subject, documentary filmmakers have always continually striven to efface the subjectivity of their own point of view by attempting to expose “the truth” in ever-more objective detail. An idealistic extreme of these efforts has been cinema vérité. I commented about cinema vérité in connection with my review of Kiarostami’s Close-Up (1999):   
The notions of cinema vérité, which actually go back to the work of Dziga Vertov and his Russian colleagues in the 1920s, became popular in France during the 1960s. The goal was to capture objective reality, “the truth”, with the camera. When the popularity of cinema vérité spread to the US, it became known as “direct cinema”, but there was an often-overlooked difference. The American filmmakers adopted a “fly-on-the-wall” approach: they wanted to make the camera so inconspicuous, so “invisible”, that the subjects being filmed were not consciously aware of its presence. The camera was to be an objective record of reality. But of course this is a fiction: the camera always has its presence and its point of view in any filmmaking activity. The French cinema vérité documentarians tended to acknowledge explicitly this presence of the observer, and they incorporated their own observations into their recordings.
The fundamental distinction between French cinema vérité and American direct cinema relates to a fundamental philosophical divide separating two ways of looking at the world, which I call “Objectivism” and “Interactionism”.
  • Objectivism is the naive objective reality stance, which most of us adopt most of the time in our everyday activities. The objective world is assumed to be scientifically knowable and reducible to elementary entities that operate according to laws that can, in principle, be discovered by an “objective” observer. This objective world is “out there” – independent of any observer. To know about this world, one’s act of scientific observation must avoid any interference with that which is being inspected. Isaac Newton’s Laws of Physics are representative examples of Objectivism’s achievements.
  • Interactionism (which could also be called the “the Phenomenological”) recognizes that the observer invariably and essentially has an effect on whatever may be observed (as attested to by physicist Werner Heisenberg with his Principle of Uncertainty). For Interactionism, every human activity invariably involves an embodied interaction with something else (even, as Heisenberg noted, when interacting with a scientific instrument). In this respect, rather than Cartesian dualism and Newtonian analysis, one should associate Interactionism with Buddhism, Sufism, and the work of Merleau-Ponty. From the Interactionist perspective, Objectivism is only an abstract ideal that has pragmatic application in many domains, but not all. But real experience, which is inescapably interactive, can only be approximated by Objectivism -- and only approximated accurately some of the time, such as when observing more remote physical objects, like the stars. In other spheres of activity, where account of human interaction cannot be minimized, such as the sphere of human social activity, Objectivist approximations are particularly weak and inaccurate.
“Direct Cinema”, which has dominated the American imagination when it comes to documentary filmmaking (even though it is only one style and not even the most common practice), exemplifies Objectivism, or claims to, anyway. Note that in fact, direct cinema documentary filmmakers have shooting ratios as high as 100 to 1, which means that out of all that “fly on the wall” material that has been collected, only a small amount of footage is actually used. This means that the film editor has been highly selective in terms of what makes the final cut, and this selectivity almost invariably reflects a personal point of view. In contrast with Objectivist-influenced American direct cinema documentarians, outstanding European documentary filmmakers, such as Werner Herzog and Louis Malle, have been Interactionists. They recognize that every documentary film presentation necessarily involves interactions on the part of the filmmaker with his subject material, and they explicitly acknowledge that interaction by supplying their own personal commentary. Michael Moore belongs to the same camp and is an Interactionist, too, but he is operating in a popular society that clings stubbornly to the belief that Objectivism is the only option.
So what we have here in Where to Invade Next is the idea that Moore takes the viewer along with him on his own personal, Interactionist journey.  It is not the US military that will be invading a foreign country on this occasion, but, instead, it is Michael Moore (and we viewers vicariously along with him) who will be doing the invading.  This sarcastically intended ruse means that, unfortunately, some people may be misled by the film’s suggestive title and stay away, thinking that the film is just a followup to Fahrenheit 9/11 and is concerned with future misguided American military misadventures and atrocities.  They will then miss out on this film’s wider philosophical compass and interesting virtues, which are more concerned with just what kind of world you want to live in.

The film does begin in conformance with its sardonic title, showing Moore having an imaginary meeting with the US Joint Chiefs of Staff.  These military leaders tell him that they have lost all wars since World War II and are now at a loss as to what to do.  Moore tells them that, in keeping with the military’s presumed temper of intrusive exploitation, he intends to stage one-man invasions into some civilized countries and “steal” from them some successful ideas for running a society that those countries have implemented.  He admits that he will not be making overall comparisons  of those societies with the U.S. – he will just be picking the flowers and not the weeds.  Moore then launches his series of invasions into nine countries to steal their good ideas.

1.  Italy
Moore first interviews an Italian working-class couple and learns about their customary work conditions.  He learns that it is common for Italian workers to have
  • 30-35 paid working-days of annual vacation (i.e. 6-7 paid weeks of vacation),
  • 15 paid days for a honeymoon,
  • 5 months of paid maternity leave, 
  • a “13th month” salary bonus paid to them at the end of the year.
Moore then visits some executives (from a clothing manufacturer and Ducati motorcycles) who express their firm support for these employee benefits.  They say they want to have happy, healthy employees, and they are happy to give their workers 2-hour lunch breaks.  Perhaps this is connected with the fact that life expectancy in Italy is four years greater than in the U.S.

2.  France
In France Moore learns that elementary school children are given a full one hour for lunch and are given nutritious food, unlike U.S. school cafeterias.  In addition, sex is not a taboo subject in French schools, and all students are given basic instruction about sex.  In particular, sex is not treated as a naughty activity, but is instead cast as a beautiful opportunity for the expression of  love.  It is suggested that perhaps the omission of sex education in US schools is connected with the high teen pregnancy rate in the U.S.

Incidentally, with regard to France and Italy, it may be worth noting that although national healthcare systems are not really a theme in this film (this is covered in Moore’s 2007 film SiCKO), the French and Italian healthcare systems were ranked numbers one and two in the world, respectively, by the World Health Organization [4].

3.  Finland

In Finland Moore learns about the renowned Finnish education system.  There are a number of contrasts between the U.S. and Finnish systems.  The Finnish system gives no homework, and it does not use multiple-choice exams in its teaching.  Nor does it teach to standardized tests.  They are more interested in developing well-rounded, cultured young people, and are not just focused on low-level skills.  They want their students to engage in the world at large.  Partly for that reason Finland has the shortest schooldays and school years in the Western world.  In addition Finland has no private schools – even the richest kids have to attend the public schools. Nevertheless, Finland has the highest performing educational system in the world.

Another possible reason for Finland’s high performance in education that I have heard about and one that Moore doesn’t mention explicitly in this film is that teaching is apparently a highly respected occupation in Finland and therefore tends to attract talented people who want to make a contribution to society.

4.  Slovenia
Moore next travels to Slovenia, where he learns that college education is completely free of charge for all students, even for foreign students.  In fact Moore interviews several American students who have come to the University of Ljubljana in Slovenia to study because they can’t afford the college fees in the U.S.  Notably in this connection, the University of Ljubljana offers one hundred courses taught in English.  These American students also say that the educations they are receiving there are of a higher standard than those they received back in the U.S.

Clearly the Slovenian government believes, like current US Presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren, that a well-educated and debt-free younger generation will be beneficial for the whole country’s welfare and that the investment for such is worth it.

5.  Germany
Then Moore shifts to Germany, where he discovers that companies are required to have 50% of their boards of directors staffed by workers in the company.  This ensures that the company boards will have longer-term, workplace-aware perspectives and not just concentrate on short-term windfalls.

Moore also notices that Germany does not shun teaching about disturbing aspects of its own history.  All school students are taught about Nazi-era atrocities to heighten awareness and ensure that such violations of basic human rights are never repeated.  This contrasts with the U.S., where, although the abolition of slavery is usually covered in schools, the subsequent continued discrimination against people of color and the earlier genocide of native American Indians is neglected. 

6.  Portugal
In Portugal Moore is astonished to learn from law-enforcement workers there that they have had no laws prohibiting drug use for the last fifteen years.  He is even further astounded that when laws decriminalizing drug usage were enacted in Portugal, the use of addictive drugs went down!  For example, Portugal’s rate of opiate usage is now about half that of the United State [5].  When  Moore asks how this is possible, one official suggests to him that free, universal healthcare is more effective in reducing addictive drug usage than punishing offenders with incarceration.

7.  Norway
This contrast between hate-inspired punishment and rehabilitation is continued in connection with the next country Moore invades – Norway.  There the prison system is based on rehabilitation, and the prisoners are treated humanely.  Even the father of one of mass murderer Anders Breivik’s 55 victims in 2011 is not consumed with revenge, only with regret.

And the Norwegian penal system seems to work well, too, even in connection with the main concerns of those who advocate severe punishment.  In the U.S. the recidivist rate of released prisoners is much higher than that of Norway – 80% of released prisoners in the U.S. are rearrested within five years, while in Norway only 20% of released prisoners are rearrested over that time. 

8.  Tunisia
In Tunisia, Moore takes note of the progressive developments of the revolution that took place there and which culminated on 14 January 2011 [6].  In particular, this predominantly Islamic country installed a new constitution that guaranteed the rights of women.  In fact the clauses associated with the rights of women in the new Tunisian constitution are very similar to those of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to the US Constitution, which failed to secure passage in the U.S. back in 1979.

Moore also has an interesting interview with Tunisian woman journalist Amel Smaoui, who at one point directly addresses the camera and reminds Americans that they can learn some things even from a small country like Tunisia.

9.  Iceland
The theme of women is continued in Moore’s visit to Iceland, where women now play important roles across society. In fact in 1980 Iceland became the first country in the world to directly elect a woman president, Vigdís Finnbogadóttir (female prime ministers chosen by indirect means had appeared elsewhere earlier). 

Moore also interviews three female CEOs and comes to the conclusion that their more holistic perspectives (than those of men) are beneficial to their work environments.  As Moore observes,
 “We [men] structure ourselves with me in mind, and you structure yourselves
   with we in mind.”
He is also told that Icelandic law now stipulates that all corporate boards of directors must consist of at least 40% women.  In fact there is gender equality here – all company boards must have a membership that is at least 40% men, too.  

Further commentary from single-mom Vigdís Finnbogadóttir tells us that the characteristic holistic attitude of women (what’s in it for all of us, rather than just what’s in it for me) make going to war a less likely option.

Moore concludes his zigzag tour by visiting the remnants of the Berlin Wall, which he had visited back in 1989 when it was being dismantled.  This serves as a reminder for him that even seemingly impossible blockages can be overcome if one just keeps chipping away.

Overall, Where to Invade Next is Michael Moore’s most upbeat film and is thoroughly entertaining to watch.  Its production values are excellent and the interviewees are spontaneous and engaging.  Critics of Moore, however, seem to be put off by his shlumpy onscreen appearance and demeanor, which though it presumably is done to affect a sympathetic working-class perspective, makes his detractors feel that Moore is just a wise-cracking shoot-from-the-hip bellyacher.  But in fact Moore’s commentary is thoughtful and cogent. 

Moore’s critics resent him, because they feel he is attacking American society, and they feel defensive about this.  So they accuse him of cherry-picking items from foreign societies and not engaging in fair comparisons.  They forget that Moore explicitly admitted at the outset of Where to Invade Next that he was not going to be engaged in overall societal comparisons and that he actually was going to be cherry-picking – just picking the flowers and not the weeds from those societies.  What he is doing here is offering constructive suggestions, not damning criticisms. 

In fact many of these constructive policy ideas that he has picked up from other countries reflect the progressive and widely praised social proposals of the world’s top economists, most of whom are based in the U.S. – Nobel Laureates Paul Krugman [7], Amartya Sen [8], and Joseph Stiglitz [9], as well as Thomas Piketty [10].  These ideas are also aligned with those of Senator and progressive US Presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren.

As Moore reminds us at the close of Where to Invade Next, most of the ideas that he has “stolen” from invaded countries appeared earlier in the U.S. and inspired many of those other countries to adopt them.  But Americans got bogged down in narrow-scoped utilitarianism and lost the plot.  What we need to do now, he seems to be telling us, is just keep chipping away and learn from the experiences of others in order to get back on the track of serving the greater good. 

  1. Kenji Fujishima, “Review: Where to Invade Next”, Slant, (30 September 2015).   
  2. Armond White, “Michael Moore’s Chucklehead Itinerary”, National Review, (12 February 2016).   
  3. The Film Sufi, “‘SiCKO’ - Michael Moore (2007)”, The Film Sufi, (10 February 2010).   
  4. “World Health Organization’s Ranking of the World’s Health Systems”, The Patient Factor (2000).   
  5. “List of countries by prevalence of opiates use”, Wikipedia, (27 July 2019).   
  6. “Tunisian Revolution”, Wikipedia, (3 August 2019).      
  7. Paul Krugman, “Paul Krugman: Macroeconomics, trade, health care, social policy and politics”, Opinion, The New York Times.   
  8. Amartya Sen, Peace and Democratic Society, Open Book Publishers, (2011). 
  9. Joseph E. Stiglitz, People, Power and Profits: Progressive Capitalism for an Age of Discontent,  W. W. Norton & Company, (2019).
  10. Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, (trans. by Arthur Goldhammer), Belknap Press (2019).

“The Blue Kite” - Tian Zhuangzhuang (1993)

Tian Zhuangzhuang, director of the marvelous The Horse Thief (Dào Ma Zéi, 1986), was an outstanding member of the Chinese Fifth Generation of filmmakers.  But Tian’s most famous film, The Blue Kite (Lan Feng Zheng, 1993), was banned in mainland China upon its release, despite being very well received abroad [1,2,3,4].  Very much like the release about the same time of the iconic classic of fellow Fifth Generation auteur Zhang Yimou’s To Live (Huozhe, 1994), The Blue Kite traces the down-to-earth struggles of ordinary people just trying to get on with their lives during the turbulent 1950s and 1960s period of Chinese history.  During this time, various radical and socially disruptive policies initiated by Chairman Mao Zedong and his clique – such as the Hundred Flowers Movement, the  Anti-Rightist Campaign, the Great Leap Forward, and the Cultural Revolution – totally turned Chinese society upside down and forced the populace to scramble just to survive.  Although things had calmed down somewhat after Mao’s death in 1976, leading to the “Beijing Spring” and the reopening in 1978 of the Beijing Film Institute (whose entry class that year included Fifth Generation filmmakers Chen Kaige, Zhang Yimou, and Tian Zhuangzhuang), one has always had to be careful in China about making public expressions critical of past government policies.  This recommendation for caution, of course, always particularly applies to filmmakers.  So even though To Live and The Blue Kite did not contain explicit criticisms of government policy, their mere coverage of hardships endured by people during this time was enough to get their creators in trouble with the authorities.  Both films of those films were immediately banned inside China.

With respect to To Live, not only was that film banned, but also director Zhang Yimou and actress Gong Li were temporarily banned from filmmaking.  And even though the coverage of those unsettling years in The Blue Kite was comparatively less emotive and more in the background than in To Live, the official response to The Blue Kite was even more severe – Tian Zhuangzhuang was banned from filmmaking for a decade.  Evidently Tian’s attempt to portray real human experiences was interpreted by the authorities as a dangerous venture into political polemics.  As he, himself, later remarked [5]:
"I finished shooting The Blue Kite in 1992. But while I was involved in post-production, several official organizations involved with China's film industry screened the film. They decided that it had a problem concerning its political 'leanings,' and prevented its completion. The fact that it can appear today seems like a miracle... The stories in the film are real, and they are related with total sincerity. What worries me is that it is precisely a fear of reality and sincerity that has led to the ban on such stories being told."
                                – Tian Zhuangzhuang
However, I would say that almost all historical narratives inherently harbor some sort of implicit authorial point of view and cannot  be simply considered to be just objectively “real”.  And that was true of The Blue Kite, too.  In fact on that score, Tian, himself, admits that The Blue Kite was not even his first foray into implied social depictions of society [6]:
“The director of ‘On the Hunting Ground’, Tian Zhuangzhuang, has indicated that he intended both this film and his followup film about Tibet, ‘Horse Thief’ [‘Daoma zei’, 1986 ], to be read as metaphors for Han Chinese society during the Cultural Revolution.  The oscillation between the highly ordered agricultural and domestic aspects of Mongol life and the extreme violence on the hunting ground can be read in terms of a similar oscillation between order and chaos in Han Chinese society, with the Cultural Revolution as a period of extreme chaos.”
Fortunately for those earlier Tian films, the Chinese authorities did not see them in those terms.

What makes The Blue Kite, though, is its compelling depiction of real people struggling for happiness in realistic situations.  The film follows the fate of a young boy, Tietou, and his family from the time of his birth in 1953 to the breakup of his family in 1968.  This was perhaps the period of greatest upheaval during the rule of the Communist Party.  And we see life during this time through the rich tapestry of the full spectrum of Tietou’s family.  Note that the blue kite, which is a plaything of Tietou’s, is a significant symbol in this story, since the color blue in traditional Chinese culture symbolizes hope and harmonious coexistence.  This is what Tietou’s family seek in the face of the confrontational disharmony that often surrounds them.

Although the film is ostensibly narrated by Tietou (there are various brief voice-over comments from Tietou retrospectively describing some events and situations that happened in the family), the principal narrative focalization is on Tietou’s mother, Chen Shujuan (played by Lü Liping [7]).  It is Lü Liping’s sensitive performance in this role that elevates the whole film to a high level.

The story of The Blue Kite is divided into three sections, which cover three phases in Tietou’s family life and which also match three periods of social disruption in Chinese society.

1.  Dad
At the outset we see a young couple, Chen Shujuan (Lü Liping), who is a schoolteacher, and Lin Shaolong (Pu Cunxin), who is a librarian, have a joyous wedding ceremony in early 1953.  Shujuan and Shaolong are loyal Communists, so they have patriotically delayed their wedding for ten days in observance of Stalin’s death, and they sing patriotic songs at the ceremony. At the end of the year, their son, Tietou, is born.  The word ‘tietou’ means “iron head”, and throughout this story the boy’s stubbornness will be on display.

We are also introduced to some other people in this family circle who are prominently featured in this story.  
  • ‘Sis’ (Xiaoying Song) is Shujian’s older sister, and among the family members, she is the most steadfastly loyal and dogmatic follower of the Communist Party’s prescriptions.
  • Chen Shusheng (Ping Zong) is a brother of Shujian and a member of the military.  Early on he starts having problems with his eyesight, and he eventually becomes resigned to the fact that he is progressively going blind.
  • Zhu Ying (Hong Zhang) is Shusheng’s pretty girlfriend/fiancé and also in the military.
  • Chen Shuyan (Quanzhong Chu) is Shujian’s youngest brother and is still in highschool.
  • Li Guodong (Xuejian Li) is a librarian co-worker and friend of Shaolong

As a little boy, Tietou plays with a blue kite, but he becomes anguished when he sees the kite has blown away.  However, his dad, Shaolong, assures Tietou that he will make a new one for him.  This, of course, has some symbolic connotation in connection with Shaolong’s and Shujian’s upbeat perspectives on life.  They believe that when you stumble, you can always get up and keep going in a positive direction.  In this connection of wishful hope, Tietou likes to sing a nursery rhyme that he has learned:
    The crow on the tree,
    The crow flying free.
    The old crow flies no more,
    Circling birds cry and caw.
    Little birds look for food.
    First feed mum and then the breed.
    I wait for mine patiently,
    For mum has always fed me.
After a few years have passed, the mass Rectification Movement is launched to establish more public ownership of land and businesses, and then the Hundred Flowers Campaign (1956-57) is begun.  During the latter movement, ordinary people were encouraged to express criticisms about their bosses and the way things were done.  So both Shusheng and Shuyan dutifully criticize aspects of the organizations to which they belong.

However, this encouraged openness turned out to be something of a trap, because there soon emerged a backlash to the Hundred Flowers Campaign called the Anti-Rightist Movement (1957-59), and people who had innocently expressed past criticisms were branded as traitorous rightists.  So Shuyan is soon condemned by his fellow classmates as a rightist.  Also the government established quotas for identifying rightists: each organization had to identify a minimum number of its members as traitors.  And so during a library staff meeting when Shaolong unfortunately had to excuse himself to go the toilet, his colleagues named him as a rightist while he was out of the room.   In short order both Shaolong and Shuyan are sent off to the countryside to work in slave-labour camps.

And things don’t go well for Zhu Ying, either.  The pretty girl comes to the amorous attentions of some high military officers, but when she tries to escape from their clutches, she, too, is ultimately arrested as a rightist and sent to jail. 

Now with her husband Shaolong away, Shujian, who has always been positive, is struggling both to make ends meet and bring up the obstreperous Tietou.  Then she gets a crushing letter informing her that Shaolong has been killed in an accident at his labour camp.

2.  Uncle
We now move into the second section of the film, which takes place during the Great Leap Forward period (1958-60).  This was a time when the Communist government, in an effort to accelerate economic growth and catch up with the West, pursued reckless and ill-considered policies that had disastrous consequences.  A precise reckoning of this extended cataclysm is hard to come by, but historians place it among history’s greatest human catastrophes.  These despotic and ruinous policies brought about massive starvation, and the best estimates have placed the death toll at about 38 million people [8].  In addition it is estimated that “at least 2.5 million people were beaten or tortured to death and one million to three million committed suicide” [9].

With starvation rising, the always dutiful Shujuan volunteers to pursue agricultural work in the countryside.  Tietou (Zhang Wenyao) is sent off to live with his granny (Li Bin), and family friend Li Guodong (called “Uncle Li” by Tietou) volunteers to come over often and help look after the boy.  While Shujuan is away, we are shown the huge communal kitchens that were setup to help feed the people en masse.  It seems impressive, but later with the family at granny’s home, Shusheng complains, correctly according to historical accounts, that these communal kitchens were wasting huge amounts of food and that the massive program of amateur steel smelting that was also being carried out was only producing useless scrap metal.  Sis just scolds Shusheng for being disloyal. 

When Shujian finally returns home, she thanks Uncle Li for all his help and consideration, both while she was away and now.  Li ultimately confesses that his familial concern is partly based on the guilt he has always felt for contributing to Shaolong being branded at the library as a rightist and thereby bearing some responsibility for Shaolong’s death.  Shujian, always trying to stay positive, tells him to forget about what happened in  the past, but Li can’t forgive himself.

As time passes, Uncle Li continues to befriend Shujian and her family, and eventually Shujian agrees to marry him, mostly for pragmatic reasons.  She wants Tietou to have a new dad.  But Li starts showing signs of serious illness, and three years later, he is taken to the hospital and dies.  Shujian and Tietou move back in with granny.

3.  Stepfather
The third section of the film is set during the early stages of another Chinese nightmare – the Cultural Revolution (1966-76).  There was again a devastating death toll over this period – around two million people killed [8,10].  And this was also another period when mass hatred was evoked among the proletariat in order to terrify the more skilled and civilized elements of Chinese society and force them into helpless submission.  But a distinguishing feature of the Cultural Revolution was just how extreme and pervasive was the level of violent hatred, especially among the young people.  The use of mass hatred, as we know, has never lost its appeal to despotic elites and continues to be employed to this day (e.g. in Iran, ISIS, Trump, etc.). 
As this section begins, we see that Tietou (now played by Chen Xiaoman) has become a troublesome teenager.  He quarrels with his mother, whom he dismisses as a maid, and she, in frustration, angrily responds with epithets of her own. 

Again for pragmatic reasons, Shujian decides to marry – this time to a well-to-do senior member of the Communist Party, Lao Wu (Baochang Guo).  There is no romantic love here, but now she can have Tietou live in a comfortable situation.  So she and Tietou move into Lao Wu’s big house.  But the atmosphere there is chilly, and the self-indulgent and dismissive teenage Tietou soon becomes bored.  On one occasion, though, Tietou’s step-cousin asks Tietou to take him kite-flying.  When their kite gets stuck high in the branches of a tall tree, Tietou, remembering his father’s optimistic counsel, reassures his step-cousin that he will make another kite for him.

But now the Cultural Revolution erupts with a vengeance – schools are shut down, textbooks are burned, and teachers and principals are accused of disloyalty to Communist principles (“struggled”).  The rebellious Tietou revels in all this chaotic freedom and chips in on the “struggling”.  As the turmoil increases, though, Lao Wu, having read some accusatory posters posted in public places, realizes that he, himself, will soon become a target of the angry Red Guard cadres, and he urges Shujian, for her safety, to divorce him and dissociate herself and Tietou from him.

Shujian seems ready to do this, but things happen too fast, and the revolutionary chaos overtakes them.  An unruly mob of Red Guard cadres comes to their house and seizes Lao Wu, and they start beating him.  Shujian tries to stop them, but she, too, is seized and beaten.  Then they turn on Tietou and give him a severe beating.

The final shots show Tietou lying beaten and dazed on the street and dimly aware, as he looks up through his half-opened eyes, of the damaged blue kite still stuck up in the tree.  Tietou’s voice-over reports that his stepfather, Lao Wu, died while in custody of a heart attack on November 7, 1968, and his mom was sent to labour reform as a counter-revolutionary. His childhood hopes, like those of his mother, for harmonious coexistence in life lie as tattered as that torn-up blue kite stuck up in the trees, and the film closes with a repeat of Tietou’s childhood nursery rhyme.

Throughout The Blue Kite we follow Shujian and her family members trying to be positive and just trying to do the right thing in life.  She and her siblings were well-meaning and benevolent; they never tried to harm the people around them.  But they were overwhelmed by tides of socially-induced hatred that were artificially evoked and swept over them.  And Tietou, with his real familial fathers continually being taken away from him as he grows up, has had to cope with an interfering state that wrongfully wants to replace them by inserting itself as his state-based father.

We might like to think that nightmares of prejudicial violence and mass incarceration belong to a bygone, uncivilized age.  But those sorts of atrocities are still with us – and in China, too.  Hatred, campaigning in the name of nationalism and patriotism, will never go away and must always be resisted.  For example in China, the UN has reported that upwards of one million ethnic Uighurs are being held in prison camps in Western China [11].  This may just sound like an abstract number to many of us, but Tian Zhuangzhuang’s carefully constructed The Blue Kite, graced by the sensitive performance of Lü Liping in the role of Shujian, puts flesh on this kind of thing.  The film shows us all how these kinds of policies can disastrously affect the lives of innocent people even on the periphery of what’s happening.
At one point late in the story of The Blue Kite, Tietou asks his mother what she seeks in life, what is it that makes her happy.  Shujian looks at him and, despite the occasional quarrels they had previously had, tells him, “being with you.”  That simply expresses her heartfelt desire to live a loving life.  Isn’t that what we all want?

  1. Roger Ebert, “The Blue Kite”, Great Movie, RogerEbert.com, (5 January 2003).  
  2. Acquarello, “The Blue Kite, 1993", Strictly Film School, (22 December 2017).   
  3. Kenneth Turan, “Movie Review : ‘The Blue Kite': An Honest, Powerful Chinese Saga”, Los Angeles Times, (1 June 1994).   
  4. Marcelle Clements, “FILM; "The Blue Kite" Sails Beyond the Censors”, The New York Times, (3 April 1994).   
  5. James Berardinelli, “Blue Kite, The (China, 1993)”, ReelViews, (n.d.).  
  6. Chris Berry, “Neither One Thing Nor Another: Toward a Study of the Viewing Subject and Chinese Cinema”, New Chinese Cinemas, (edited by Nick Browne, Paul G. Pickowicz, Vivian Sobchack, and Esther Yau), Cambridge University Press, (2005), p. 103.
  7. Lü Liping had notably appeared earlier in Old Well, (Lao Jing, 1987).
  8. Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, Mao: The Unknown Story, Jonathan Cape, (2005).
  9. "Great Leap Forward”, Wikipedia, (24 July 2019).
  10. Ian Johnson, “Who Killed More: Hitler, Stalin, or Mao?”, The New York Review of Books, (5 February 2018).   
  11. “Detention of Uighurs must end, UN tells China, amid claims of prison camps”, The Guardian, (31 August 2018).  

“The Horse Thief” - Tian Zhuangzhuang (1986)

Tian Zhuangzhuang is one of the great Chinese filmmakers who were part of a cinematic renaissance known as the Fifth Generation film movement in China.  Why they all came together at that time in the 1980s is an artifact of history.  After the ravages of the Chinese Cultural Revolution (1966-76), the Beijing Film Institute reopened its doors and began taking new students in 1978.  Three of the new students who had been waiting for this opportunity were Chen Kaige, Zhang Yimou, and Tian Zhuangzhuang, who not long after they were graduated in 1982 came to be regarded together as the leaders of the Fifth Generation movement.

Although Tian Zhuangzhuang is not as internationally well-known as Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige, he nevertheless well deserves your attention, too.  Tian’s most famous film is The Blue Kite (Lán Fengzhen, 1993), but perhaps his greatest film is one of his earliest outings – The Horse Thief (Dào Ma Zéi, 1986).  This film has a powerful, almost mystical, ambiance that evokes in us the austere, spiritually-infused consciousness of Tibetan peasants living in the remote highlands.  These peasant livestock herders lived in such severe conditions that they felt their constantly imperiled existences could only persist by the grace of the mountain god to whom they endlessly prayed.  And the feeling of living this way is expertly conveyed to us in the film, not so much by the performances of the characters (all whom are played by nonprofessional actors and actresses), but by the expressionistic evocation of the entire “world” (as consciously perceived) in which these people live.  And this is what seems to have stood out for a number of film critics who have seen the film [1,2,3,4,5,6]. 

Indeed, The Horse Thief has even been compared to 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) in the way it portrays to us an ultimately unfathomable and existentially threatening universe [7].  However, with respect to the protagonists in 2001, though, their hopes for survival (and hence their “faith”) were placed in scientific rationalism and technology; while for the protagonists in The Horse Thief, their faith was placed in the gods.  Anyway, perhaps it was something along these lines that inspired Martin Scorsese, who by the way seems to have seen thousands of films, to state that The Horse Thief was the best film he saw during the 1990s (he didn’t see the film upon its initial release in the 1980s) [8].  The Scorsese connection here is interesting to me, because I would say that the film that most closely reminds me of The Horse Thief is his own Taxi Driver (1976).  Both films effectively convey existential loneliness through the expressionistic presentation of an isolating and threatening world.

Note, however, that the atmosphere of loneliness in The Horse Thief is not conveyed via claustrophobic enclosure, as it might be in some films.  Quite the contrary, the wide open spaces of Tibet are presented in their breathtaking breadth via the superb wide-screen cinematography of Hou Yong and Zhao Fei.  And the humans shown here are mere insignificant and vulnerable little dots in this vast landscape.  The cinematography further enhances this impression of human vulnerability by having few medium shots and restricting itself mostly to long shots (many of which are of long duration) and closeups (many of which are shot from a low angle).

As the story of The Horse Thief unfolds, we see that the main character, Norbu, is going through something of a spiritual struggle.  He is devoutly religious, but at the same time he also looks after his loved ones by committing the sin of thievery.  The film withholds making any moral judgements about his behaviour, and the viewer may also have ambiguous feelings about him.  Instead of the film presenting polemical viewpoint, though, we see Norbu’s world from a more neutral external perspective, where alienation is constantly mediated by religious ritual and the wide dispersion of Tibetan prayer flags.  In fact since ritual is such a crucial and pervasive element to this narrative depiction, I will highlight the film’s extended and colourful presentations of religious ritual by the tag “RITUAL”.

The story of The Horse Thief, which was scripted by Zhang Rui, is presented in roughly five segments.  At the outset, the viewer is informed by a title that the film is set in 1923.  However, this initial titling was imposed on the filmmakers by the Chinese government in order to disconnect anything that happens in the story from the policies of the Chinese Community party.  Actually, what is shown could have taken place at any time over the previous hundred years or so.

1.  Norbu and Dolma
The film begins with Norbu (played by Rigzin Tseshang) and his colleague (whom I believe is called Nowre) sneaking up on some horses that have been tied up outside their owner’s tent and stealing them.   Later, Norbu is shown at home with his wife Doma (Jiji Dan) as they put their beloved two-year-old son Tashi to bed.  It is evident that Norbu and Dolma have a loving domestic household.  When Norbu subsequently goes out at night on another mission, Dolma is shown fervently praying alone to the gods for his safe return.

When a peddler comes to their small village, Norbu spends some of his little cash to purchase a ceremonial quiver that will be used to hold some sacred arrows to be offered to the Mountain God in order to secure his blessing.  This is followed by a (RITUAL) sequence showing the  Tibetan Buddhist ceremonies offering obeisance to the Mountain God, who is referred to as “Triratna” [9]. 

Later they are informed that their village head’s father has died and that dozens of lamas have been summoned to pray to Triratna for the man’s blessing so that he will be reincarnated to the Elysium.  Norbu, of course, must attend this ceremony, which is presented in detail (RITUAL).  Then Norbu and Dolma go to the temple to turn the prayer wheels in order to pray to Triratna to wash away their own bad karma (RITUAL). 

So by the end of this segment, the viewer has been able to see that Norbu is devoted to his wife, his son, and his religion.  But he is also a thief.

2.  An Unforgivable Crime
Next we see some monks on horseback on a mountain path and guiding some pack animals loaded with gifts for the temple.  Norbu and his companion come upon them and stage a violent robbery of their possessions.  But when Norbu and Nowre come to a safe location after awhile and divide up the spoils, they show that they intend to give most of the stolen loot to the temple and keep only a relatively small amount for themselves.  In fact Norbu ultimately decides to give all of his portion to the temple in order to pray for his son Tashi’s welfare.

When Norbu returns home, there are more loving family scenes showing them bathing in the river, which for them also serves as a religious ablution. 

However, news of their theft gets back to the village, and Norbu is accused of an unforgivable crime – stealing the headman’s gifts to the temple.  This is deemed an insult to the god Triratna, and Norbu is banished from the clan and ordered to leave living in the plains.  Norbu humbly accepts his punishment and vows that he will never steal again (RITUAL).  He and his family go up to the hills to live in a tent, next to which they setup their small monument of homage-signalling prayer arrows that express their obeisance to the god (RITUAL).

3.  Tashi is Ill
Tashi comes down with some illness, and this a very serious matter.  Although it may not be well known to many readers, only about half of all children ever born in primitive societies throughout history have managed to survive to adulthood [10].  Dolma prays for Tashi to Triratna, and Norbu goes to the temple to painstakingly collect “holy water” drippings from the temple water spout (RITUAL).  Then Norbu goes to the temple to engage in more praying for Tashi (RITUAL).

But Tashi dies in the winter.  The intensely grieving Norbu and Dolma perform extended ceremonial rites for Tashi’s soul, which is shown in a brilliant and extended sequence of meditative dissolves that take up about three minutes of screen time (RITUAL).  This is followed by about five minutes of lavish temple burial ceremonies (RITUAL).

4.  The Livestock Plague
In the spring, Dolma gives birth to another son, and the couple have another child for their loving concern.  However, a new problem arises.  The region is hit with a devastating livestock plague that causes massive deaths, and herders are shown shovelling heaps of goats into mass, hastily dug graves.  There is a new fatalistic ambience that sweeps over the people.  The herders’ only alternative is to shepherd their herds to a new region.  Desperate for some livelihood, Norbu looks for menial work in a temple.  He is ultimately hired to participate in a ritual procession by carrying a plaster statue of a demon over to a river where, upon his placing the statue in the water, it is ceremonially stoned by the religious populace hoping for relief from the plague (RITUAL).

5.  Desperation
Still desperate to find some way to support his new baby, Norbu goes back to his village and asks his traditionalist grandmother if she thinks he can be forgiven and return to the clan.  She tells him that Dolma and the child can return, but for him, absolution is not possible.  So as winter sets in, Norbu sells his horse and kills a lamb for some food to eat.  Seeing that a snowstorm is coming, he tells Dolma to take the child and rush back down from the hills to live in the village. 

But Dolma doesn’t want to leave her husband.  She, like so many of these peasants, is still hoping for some kind of salvation from the god Triratna.  Then they see a lightning bolt strike their homemade prayer-arrow monument, setting it ablaze. For these devout people, this fire undoubtedly signals to them that Triratna has rejected them.

With time running out, Norbu now realizes that he must break his vow and steal again in order to provide Dolma with a horse to ride to safety.  So Norbu, with Dolma’s help, goes out in the night, and they steal two horses.  With the angry stolen horse owners on their heels, Norbu hastily sends Dolma and the child off down the mountain, while he returns to fend off his pursuers.  But Norbu’s prospects for survival and salvation were dire indeed, as the closing shot indicates.

Although The Horse Thief may seem to have a relatively simple plot, the film has a gripping presence throughout.  This is due largely to the expertly crafted immersion of the viewer into Norbu’s spiritually-connected world, thanks in part to the cinematography by Hou Yong and Zhao Fei and the film editing by Jingzhong Li.  Also effective is the atmospheric and unobtrusive music of Qu Xiaosong, featuring native chanting along with haunting instrumental and vocal music.  And, of course, overseeing it all is Tian Zhuangzhuang’s masterful direction.

  1. Janet Maslin, “Film: 'The Horse Thief'”, The New York Times, (6 January 1988).   
  2. Dennis Schwartz, "HORSE THIEF (Dao ma zei): A truly amazing film that takes a western audience to mystical places they have never seen before.", Ozus’ World Movie Reviews, (1 May 2004).   
  3. Jeffrey M. Anderson, “The Horse Thief”, Combustible Celluloid, (n.d.).    
  4. Martin Teller, “The Horse Thief”, Martin Teller's Movie Reviews,  (21 March 21 2013).   
  5. Kevin Jack Hagopian, “Horse Thief”, New York State Writers Institute, (n.d.).   
  6. Scarlet Cheng, “Daoma Zei - Film (Movie) Plot and Review”, Film Reference, (n.d.).  
  7. Peter Reiher, "horse.thief", Laboratory for Advanced Systems Research, (27 August 2002).   
  8. Roger Ebert, “Ebert & Scorsese: Best Films of the 1990s”, Roger Ebert’s Journal, (27 February 2000).   
  9. “Tri Ratna”, I believe, refers to the  Three Jewels (or Three Treasures) of Buddhism – “the Buddha, The Dharma (the Buddha's teachings) and the Sangha (the community of monks and nuns, or more generally the community of Buddhist practitioners)”.  However ordinary Tibetan Buddhist practise, as shown in this film, was infused with other traditional religions, too, such as Bon.  Here in this film these three Tibetan Buddhist jewels seem to be embodied in the holy personage of the Mountain God.
  10. Max Roser, “Mortality in the past – around half died as children”, Our World in Data, (11 June 2019).       

Tian Zhuangzhuang

Films of Tian Zhuangzhuang:

“Branches of the Tree” - Satyajit Ray (1990)

Satyajit Ray’s penultimate film, Branches of the Tree (Shakha Proshakha, 1990), coming just after his An Enemy of the People (Ganashatru, 1989) and just before Agantuk (The Stranger 1991), was one of the loose trilogy of films that he made after suffering a debilitating heart attack in 1983.  What unites the three films, the last two of which were based on Ray’s own stories [1], seems to be a somewhat sombre concern for the revelation of the true state of affairs among people, something that may have preoccupied Ray’s mind during his final years before his death in 1992 due to heart failure.  Looking over our lives over a long time, we all may tend to ask in the end what we stood for, who we were.  This perhaps was what was on Ray’s mind.
Branches of the Tree is a rather sophisticated concoction of these concerns, since they are spread across a number of principal characters who inquisitively interact with each other to cautiously reveal and discover themselves.  As such, the film does not involve so much some people changing over the course of the story in response to external events, but instead relatively unchanging personages discovering things about each other.  This revelatory structure, as well as the film’s not having the focus of a single protagonist (or team of protagonists), makes for a unique and thought-provoking kind of drama; and for these reasons Branches of the Tree has not been ranked very high among Ray’s films by critics and viewers.  Nevertheless, I would say that the film is a nuanced and well-crafted production, featuring excellent ensemble acting on the part of its cast members, and it well reflects Ray’s masterful cinematic talents.

The story of the film concerns a wealthy and now retired industrialist, Ananda Majumdar, and his four grownup sons, each of whom is a unique character and focus of attention.  One of the strengths of this film is that Ray fashions five distinctly different characters here, and the actors consistently remain true to these respective disparate characterizations throughout the story.

Early on in the film, Ananda suffers a serious heart attack during a civic ceremony celebrating his 70th birthday.  Three of Ananda’s sons are businessmen who live in towns some distance (several hours by train) away, and they dutifully rush to their now bedridden father’s home in order to express their filial concern.  The other son is mentally handicapped and has been living with the father, so now all four sons are in attendance at the paternal home.  The ensuing story mainly concerns the interactions of these people as they hopefully await for promising signs concerning Ananda’s health condition.

Because so much revolves around the characterizations of the four sons and their families, I will  first give brief outlines of them.
  • Ananda Majumdar (played by Ajit Banerjee) is the wealthy 70-year-old industrialist and father of four sons.  He is the principled and highly honoured pillar of his community – in fact, his community has been renamed after him – and he is a steadfast upholder of the virtues of honesty and diligence.  His wife passed away about twenty years ago, and he now lives basically alone (with a servant) at home with two people who are mentally handicapped and offer almost no opportunities for meaningful interaction – his senile 93-year-old father and his brain-damaged second son, Proshanto.
  • Proshanto (played by longtime Ray favourite, Soumitra Chatterjee) is Ananda’s second son, whose promising career (Ananda considered him to be the smartest of his four sons) was ruined by a motor vehicle accident while he was studying in London many years ago.  Now he sits alone most of the time in his room listening to Bach-composed classical music records.  He never looks people in the eye, and he seems almost completely unable to communicate.  But there are indications over the course of the story that he may be more aware of what is said in his company than is first suggested.  So he is our quasi-mute witness to what transpires.
  • Probodh (Haradhan Banerjee, another veteran of many Ray films) is the eldest son and seems to be in his late forties.  He is a very successful businessman; but although he is generally outwardly amiable, he seems inwardly cynical and unsympathetic.  For example, he thinks that his harmless brother Proshanto should be shipped off to an insane asylum.  Probodh is accompanied on this trip by his admiring wife Uma (Lily Chakravarty).
  • Probir (Deepankar Dey) is the third son and a financial businessman.  Unlike his upright eldest brother, the fortyish Probir is an openly sinful hedonist, addicted to alcohol, gambling, and extra-marital affairs.  He excuses himself for these things by jovially and openly admitting his wrongdoings – he feels that he is at least honest about himself.  He also attributes his inherent greed to what he supposedly learned from his father, but in his own case more honestly confessed.  Probir is accompanied on this trip by his comely wife, Tapti (Mamata Shankar), and his young (about 6-8 years old) son, Dingo (Soham Chakraborty).
  • Protap (Ranjit Mallick) is the unmarried youngest son.  Now thirty-four, he has been working for a decade at a cushy advertising job that his father had arranged for him.  But the pervasive dishonesty and corruption of his own business colleagues has led him, unbeknownst to his family, to recently resign from his position and take up an acting position in professional theater.  
The story of this family is told in about four stages.

1.  Ananda and Proshanto at Home
The film begins by showing Ananda Majumdar living at home with his mentally disabled son Proshanto.  As Ananda soothingly and somewhat rhetorically talks to his almost mute son, who never looks him in the eye and only responds with occasional single-word, ejaculations, we get the impression that Proshanto has always been Ananda’s favourite son.  At one point Ananda  reminds his son of his two fundamental mottos for life:
  • “Work is worship”
  • “Honesty is the best policy”
But later at a celebratory civic party for Ananda’s 70th birthday, where the community leaders express their appreciation for his many contributions he has made to the town that has been named after him, he suffers a serious heart attack.  Ananda is taken home for extended medical care; and upon hearing about his condition, the other three sons make arrangements to come to their father’s side.

2.  Three Sons Arrive
The other three sons arrive with their families from distant locations for a stay in Ananda’s home, and they inquire with the doctor about their bedridden father’s condition.  When they learn from the doctor that Ananda’s longer-term prospects won’t be known for three weeks, Probodh and Probir express their vexation to each other over the fact that they will have to take more time out from their busy lives than they had anticipated.  They want to know what is the minimum required for them to do their duty.  Thus, for them, their own private concerns are seen to take some precedence over familial compassion. 

Because of Ananda’s renown, an out-of-town newspaperman comes to write a story about him, and Probodh recites to him his father’s many professional and humanitarian accomplishments.  In particular, he tells him, his father was famous for his honesty.

3.  Revelations
When Protap and his brother Probir’s wife Tapti have a chance to meet alone, we learn that the two of them have long been familial best friends.  In fact although she never exceeds the bounds of propriety, it is clear that Tapti is in love with her brother-in-law.  Protap confesses to her that the brooding attitude he has been displaying since his arrival is because he quit his high-standing business job one month ago due to the rampant dishonesty and bribe-taking he observed among his colleagues.  They have unashamedly told him that his father’s honesty is no longer possible in today’s India.  So he has decided to become a theater actor, a profession that is considered to have an unacceptably low standing among people of his class.  For her part, Tapti tells her soul-mate about her dysfunctional marriage to a husband who is a compulsive gambler and alcoholic.

Later, they all, except for the near-comatose and bedridden Ananda, get together for a family dinner.  At the table the conversation takes a nasty turn when Probir’s openly corrupt life becomes a subject of discussion.  Probodh criticizes his younger brother, but Probir unashamedly defends himself.  He says that there are two kinds of money – white money and black money.  White money is money earned by honest means, while black money is earned via corrupt means, such as embezzlement and bribes.  He says that these days black money is necessary and the only way to go in business and in life.  He also says that Probodh, whom he knows engages in illegal income tax evasion, is just as corrupt as he is.  Upon hearing this, the seemingly inattentive Proshanto explodes in anger and begins compulsively pounding his fist on the dinner table.

The next morning in their room, Probodh confesses his wrongdoings to his wife but says that dishonesty is standard practice in today’s world.  Ananda’s days of honesty are finished, he tells her.

A little later Ananda urges his attending relatives to relax and go out together on a picnic, which they, except for Proshanto, agree to do.  This picnic scene features an excellent display of coordinated ensemble-acting cinematography, and it shows Ray’s continued mastery in this regard.  The brothers and their wives all nervously try to amuse each other, but the unspoken issue of honesty and integrity is still just beneath the surface.  Finally and amidst this jocularity, Probir taunts the still-brooding and unsociable Protap to reveal what is bothering him.  Protap tells them all what he had earlier confessed only to Tapti – that he has resigned from his prestigious business job and entered the dubious field of theater acting because of the pervasive dishonesty infecting the business world.

4.  Departure Day
After a couple of weeks, Ananda’s condition seems to have stabilized, and his sons and their families make arrangements to return to their own lives.  Just before the adults are about to collectively bid farewell to Ananda, however, the young Dilgo sneaks into his grandfather’s room and wants to tell him what he has learned on his visit.  Among the things he has learned, Dilgo innocently tells him, is that there are two types of money – honest money and dishonest money – and that his father and older uncle have dishonest money.  Ananda instantly understands what this means and is crestfallen.  His dreams of having raised an honourable family are shattered.  
After the visitors have all respectfully taken their leave, the grieving Ananda calls Proshanto to his bedside.  On this occasion Proshanto shows empathetic concern, and he finally looks his father directly in the eye.  As the film closes, Ananda reaches out to him and tells him, “you are my everything”.

Branches of the Tree is a grim tale about what mark we make as we pass through this complex and imperfect world.  The facts that Ray, himself, was about the same age as Ananda in this story and that he, himself, was suffering like Ananda from the effects of a serious heart attack suggest to us that the content of this film reflects some of Ray’s own most personal considerations. 

Here, Ananda’s four sons, his branches, represent different positions one might take with respect to the corrupting temptations one might encounter along the way.  In the background is the disturbing image of Ananda’s dementia-addled 93-year old father.  If this is the image of our inevitable deterioration, then we may well be concerned about leaving something more meaningful behind before we go.  So these are the positions concerning dishonesty that were assumed by Ananda’s four sons:
  • Embracing itProbir made no bones about his corrupt life and openly embraced dishonesty.  But at least he was honest about that.
  • Making compromises with itProbodh made judicious and surreptitious compromises with corruption.  He played the game of respectability, but he was even less honest than Probir was.
  • Running away. Protap sought to run away from corruption.  But this will probably prove to be more difficult than he imagines.
  • Innocence. Proshanto is basically innocent, but we feel he wants to be good.  And his final engaging look with his father even suggests that he might be getting a little better.  In any case, Proshanto is his father’s only hope.
All in all, this is a thoughtful tale about different postures towards honesty and integrity, and Ray gave it a subtly dramatic rendering.

  1. Hari Narayan, “A Ray that reflects on itself”, Thread, The Hindu, (2 May 2016).