“Red Sorghum” - Zhang Yimou (1987)

Red Sorghum (Hong Gaoliang, 1987) was Zhang Yimou’s first directorial outing (he started out earlier as a cinematographer), and it was also the first modern Chinese film to be commercially released in the U. S. [1].  Although earlier films by fellow Fifth Generation Chinese filmmakers, such as Tian Zhuangzhuang and Chen Kaige, had received significant critical admiration on the Western art-house circuit, they apparently didn’t have the eye-popping blockbuster production values of Red Sorghum (such as its spectacular, brightly-hued wide-screen cinematography) to attract mainstream commercial distributors.  They also didn’t have the magnetic allure of Zhang’s dramatic star and artistic partner, Gong Li.  Anyway and for whatever reasons, Red Sorghum did go on to win the Golden Bear Award (Best Film) at the 38th Berlin International Film Festival in 1988.

Certainly Red Sorghum does have narrative and production features likely to appeal to a broad audience spectrum, but just what is its overall intended meaning has been the subject of a variety of interpretations.  The general topic could be said to be that of aspirations of heroic masculinity, but is the underlying tone worshipful, reproachful, or ironic? 

The story of the film is loosely based on 2012 Nobel Prize winner Mo Yan’s first novel Red Sorghum Clan (1986), but the film adopts its own distinctive perspective.  In the story here, we follow the changing circumstances and experiences of a young woman who inherits and operates a liquor distillery during the 1930s.  The focalization is persistently on her, but the action of the film consists of a series of events imposed on the woman arising from traditional Chinese (and Japanese) notions of masculinity. 

Because masculinity is such an important underlying theme in this film, it might first be best to mention the wider cultural lens through which masculinity is sometimes viewed in China.  This is associated with the traditional Daoist yin-yang dualism.  According to this conceptualization, the world is permeated with two complementary conceptual forces:
  • yang – associated with: light, warmth, summer, daylight, masculinity, ascent, and action
  • yin – associated with: darkness, coldness, winter, night, femininity, descent, and inaction
So yang can be considered to be an abstract conceptualization of masculinity, and yin is an abstract conceptualization of femininity.  According to most traditional accounts, both yang and yin are necessary and just need to be maintained in a proper balance.  However, Confucian sage Dong Zhongshu (179-104 B.C.) is said to have held that yang is essentially good and yin is detrimental, to wit [2]:
"The yang is benign while the yin is malign: the yang means birth while the yin means death.  Therefore yang is mostly present and prominent: yin is constantly absent and marginal."
In any case, one could certainly argue that Red Sorghum’s treatment of masculinity needs to be considered from the larger Daoist perspective.  Moreover, as Yeujin Wang has remarked [3]:
“One distinction that marks the contemporary Chinese New Wave cinema is its sense of cultural urgency couched in the collective consciousness, and the impossibility of there being private isolation in this critical moment of historical transformation that will eventually implicate every individual. In this context, issues of masculinity and femininity acquire more social and symbolic resonances than they may in the West.“
Apart from any specific Daoist considerations, though, there have been three main stances that critics have adopted with respect to the general depiction of masculinity in Red Sorghum:
  • Celebration of heroic masculinity
    Critic Roger Ebert, for example, saw the film as a throwback to the old Hollywood-style “shoot ‘em up” action movies, like the old Hollywood Westerns, that featured heroic good guys going up against bad guys [1].  For him, the movie was a celebration of heroic masculinity among the common people.
  • Condemnation of crude, narcissistic masculinity
    Others have seen the film as a portrayal of reprehensible male narcissism, with the female protagonist in the story shown being continually subjected to the ego gratification activities of males with whom she is forced to interact [4].
  • Masculinity seen through a feminine perspective
    But one can also see the film from the feminine perspective.  After all, the focalization of the film is entirely on the female protagonist, and she is not entirely passive.  Within the social constraints imposed on her, she expresses her own feminine assertiveness and personal responses to the masculine-dominant world surrounding her.  In fact in this regard [3]
    “Female sexuality is represented not through the frank sexual scenes which are kept off-screen, thus defying the male spectators' voyeuristic impulse, but rather by focusing on the female presence as the locus of discourse. Gong Li, who plays Jiuer, has a temperamental look of rapture and ecstasy that is always there.”
The story of Red Sorghum plays out through five sections, or “acts”; and to help trace this masculine-feminine theme that I have been discussing, I will identify moments in the narrative that show expressions of masculinity (with “(M)”) and feminine assertiveness (with “(F)”).

1.   1929 – An Arranged Marriage

The film begins with an unseen narrator saying that this tale is about his grandmother, Jiu’er (played by Gong Li).  As a very young woman, she is sent off on a marriage palanquin to the remote home/business of her new bridegroom, Li Datou, who, we are told (he is never seen in the film), is a 50-year-old man who owns a liquor distillery and suffers from leprosy.

The palanquin carriers are workers from the groom’s distillery, except for the leader, Yu (Jiang Wen), who is a professional sedan carrier.  Yu is a brawny, super-confidant fellow who leads the other carriers in singing ribald songs to taunt and embarrass the unhappy bride inside the closed palanquin (M).  Jiu’er is anguished by these antics, but we see that she is secretly carrying a pair of scissors with her, which she apparently intends to use in case things get out of hand (F).

Along the way, the palanquin is carried through a wild sorghum field (the sorghum plants have tall stalks and thereby provide concealment for anyone who wants to hide among them), and they are ambushed by a masked bandit, who wants all their money and to carry off Jiu’er into the sorghum field (M).  However, Yu manages to fight off the bandit and kill him (M).  Finally Jiu’er is delivered to Li Datou’s remote home.

2.  Jiu’er Visits Her Parental Home
Following custom, Jiu’er must visit her own parents three days after her wedding, so her father comes to fetch her and escort her back to her parents’ home on the back of a donkey.  With her father trying to walk beside her on foot, Jiu’er rushes ahead on the donkey and out of her father’s sight (F).  When she gets to the sorghum fields, she is again attacked by a masked bandit.  But this one turns out to be Yu, a person Jiu’er had earlier been eyeing.  When Jiu’er sees who her attacker is, she willingly succumbs to his  demands for sexual intercourse in the sorghum field (M), (F).

Later Jiu’er makes it to her parents’ home, but there she renounces her father for having arranged her unwanted marriage to a leper just so he could secure a valued dowry (F).  She tells him that she never wants to see him again.

3.  Jiu’er Returns to the Distillery

When Jiu’er returns to the distillery, she learns that Li Datou has been murdered.  The voiceover narrator says he presumes that the murderer was Yu, whom he refers to as his grandpa (M). 

Since Li Datou had no heirs, Jiu’er inherits the distillery.  Although she has no experience running a distillery, she convinces all the workers, who have been packing their bags preparing to leave, to stay and help run the distillery in communal fashion (F).

Then an inebriated Yu comes to the distillery and drunkenly boasts to everyone that he had had sex with Jiu’er (M).  He tries to barge into Jiu’er’s quarters, but she has him thrown out (F).  Then the workers dump the passed-out Yu into a large empty clay jug.

4.  Sanpao, the Bandit
Suddenly the notorious gun-wielding bandit Sanpao (Ji Chunhua) and his gang now attack the distillery.  Sanpao abducts Jiu’er and holds her for ransom (M).  Yu, now sober, can only cower in helplessness.  Later, though, after the ransom is paid Yu daringly tracks down Sanpao and after a scuffle, gets the bandit to confirm that he did not have sex with Jiu’er (M).

Now feeling more macho than ever, Yu comes to the distillery during a new-liquor ceremony and contemptuously urinates into all the new-liquor vats (M).  Then after wrecking some distillery equipment, he proudly carries Jiu’er off into her bedroom to have sex with her (M).  The workers only watch helplessly.

Later, however, the distillery foreman happens to taste the pissed-in liquor and discovers that it has an exquisite taste.  He reports this news to Jiu’er, and they start producing liquor according to this new formula.

5.  1938
The scene shifts forward nine years, and the distillery is shown to be booming, thanks to its secret formula.  Jiu’er is the happy mother of a nine-year-old son, Dou-Guan, the narrator’s father. 

However, the Second Sino-Japanese War has begun, and invading Japanese troops come to the distillery locale and force all the villagers in the area to trample the sorghum fields so they can build a road there (M).  The Japanese soldiers are shown here to be cruel and inhuman, and revelling in torture, which reflects general Chinese feelings concerning the holocaust that the Japanese inflicted on them at this time [5].

The Japanese then order a local butcher to skin alive the captured bandit Sanpao.  When he resists them by killing Sanpao quickly, the soldiers shoot the butcher.  Then they order the butcher’s assistant to skin alive the captured former distillery foreman, who had left earlier and apparently joined the Communist forces (M).  All the locals, including Jiu’er and Yu, are forced to watch this horror in silence.

That evening, Jiu’er gets Yu and the distillery workers to swear to avenge this cruel murder (F).  They go out at night to set up an alcohol-based bombing ambush on the Japanese truck for the next morning.  However, in the morning the Japanese truck still hasn’t come, and Dou-Guan reports back to his mother at the distillery that the ambushers are getting hungry.  So Jiu’er prepares some food for her team and brings it out to them (F). 

Just when she arrives, though, the Japanese truck shows up, and she is machine-gunned.  The attack is triggered too early and botched, and in the ensuing mayhem almost everyone is killed.  The only ones to survive are Yu and Dou-Guan, who are shown at the end staring forlornly at the devastation.

The film ends in despair, with Jiu’er finally succumbing to one of the many acts of masculinity-fed brutalization that had plagued her throughout her life.  But there are images and sequences that resonate in the mind long afterwards.  So before returning to the key issue of Red Sorghum’s portrayal of masculinity, we might comment on the excellent wide-screen cinematography of photographer Changwei Gu (Farewell My Concubine (1993) and Ju Dou (1990)) and director Zhang Yimou, himself a former cinematographer.  The color red is a symbolic image in the film and is featured in various places.  At one point, after Yu has had sex with Jiu’er in the sorghum field, he sneaks along, hidden in the sorghum stalks, and sings to her a ribald song extolling the virtues  of red.  In it he says that red is the color for (a) the blaze of love, (b) the bride’s chamber, (c) a virgin’s blood, and (d) red sorghum liquor.  More generally, Yeujin Wang comments [3]:
“Redness bespeaks desire, passion, blood (itself signifying birth and death), beauty and cruelty, destruction and construction (in that the homogeneous color scheme destroys the previous world of color and re-orders a new world).”
Thus red might be considered to be representative of the Daoist notion of the yang force, but at the same time it is associated with images of femininity that invite lustful masculine thoughts.  This powerful but ambivalent nature of red with respect to the masculine-feminine dualism is what seems to lie at the heart of Red Sorghum.

So returning to the three main critical stances in connection with the film, I would reject the “celebration of heroic masculinity” line adopted by some critics like Roger Ebert.  Yu shows some bravery in this story, but he is also crude, boorish, and narcissistic towards women.  He sees femininity as just there to be exploited for his pleasures.  The other manifestations of masculinity – the leprous Li Datou, the bandits, and the Japanese soldiers – are even worse.  As Yeujin Wang remarks, Jiu’er is seen as an object [3]:
“Jiuer is carried off by men four times in the film: first as an unwilling bride carried by a group of lusty chair-bearers to the leprous bridegroom; a second time as a potential rape victim in the sorghum field; a third time as a willing mate on her second trip through the sorghum field; and finally in her kidnapping by the local bandit for ransom.“
At the same time, I don’t see the film as a “condemnation of crude, narcissistic masculinity”, either.  Jiu’er is shown to have an affinity for men who can be cooperative and work with her.  And we do see occasions of positive masculine responses to her team-spirit approach.  Consequently I would go along with the stance of seeing the film as “masculinity seen through a feminine perspective”.  Again, Yeujin Wang has some appropriate comments in this regard [3]:
“The film Red Sorghum - ostensibly about the uninhibited manners of masculinity - is ironically and structurally contained in a discourse about the maternal which is narrated by a first-person voice-over.
    . . .
In other words, it is through a feminine vision of totality that the masculine past is re-constructed and obtains coherence and meaning.“
Nevertheless and despite Gong Li’s magnetic performance, this feminine vision doesn’t truly come together in the film.  Over the course of the story, Jiu’er is subjected to a sequence of masculinity-fuelled actions of oppression, but is there any sense of narrative progression here?  She has her own feminine assertiveness, but in the end she simply falls prey to urges for revenge, the same kind of crude impulse characteristic of her male antagonists.  She just used her male coworkers as instruments for her revenge.

But the real problem with Red Sorghum’s storytelling is with its characterization of Yu.  He is the major figure of Jiu’er’s attention, but I am unable to empathize with his point of view or otherwise “get inside” him.  And why she is attracted to him is a mystery to me.  Moreover, he doesn’t strike me as a figure worthy of being a representative of the Communist common man.  So although the film has its fascinating attractions, it doesn’t quite add up.  Zhang Yimou, however, would soon go on to make some truly outstanding works of a universal nature.

  1. Roger Ebert, “Red Sorghum”, Roger Ebert.com, (28 February 1989).
  2. Dong Zhongshu, “The Noble Yang and the Base Yin”, Chunqiu Fanlu Yuyin, quoted in
    • Zhang Dainian, “Zhongguo Zexue Dagang (An Outline of Chinese Philosophy)”, (Beijing: China Social Sciences and Humanities Press), quoted in
      • Yeujin Wang, “Mixing Memory and Desire: “Red Sorghum” A Chinese Version of Masculinity and Femininity”, Public Culture, Vol. 2, No. 1: Fall 1989, Duke University Press, pp. 31-53.
  3. Yeujin Wang, “Mixing Memory and Desire: Red Sorghum A Chinese Version of Masculinity and Femininity”, Public Culture, Vol. 2, No. 1: Fall 1989, Duke University Press, pp. 31-53. 
  4. Chris Berry, “Neither One Thing nor Another: Toward a Study of the Viewing Subject and Chinese Cinema in the 1980s”, New Chinese Cinemas, (ed. by Nick Browne, Paul G. Pickowicz, Vivian Sobchack, Esther Yau), Cambridge University Press, (1994), pp. 88-113.
  5. Iris Chang, The Rape of Nanking, Basic Books, (1997).

“Yellow Earth” - Chen Kaige (1984)

The Fifth Generation of Chinese filmmakimg was made possible by the ending of the Chinese Cultural Revolution (1966-76) and the subsequent reopening of the Beijing Film Institute for study in 1978.  Among that first group of students graduating in 1982 were future leaders of the Fifth Generation movement: Chen Kaige, Zhang Yimou, and Tian Zhuangzhuang. These young cineastes had ambitions to pursue new forms of cinematic expression in a Chinese context, and the first major film to emerge from this group was Yellow Earth (Huang tu di, 1984), which was directed by Chen Kaige and photographed by Zhang Yimou.

Upon its release, Yellow Earth was not a major hit in China, but it quickly attracted attention outside China [1].  Indeed, because the film abandoned the prevailing government censorial preference for socialist realism, it was probably fortunate that the film was even approved for release in China at all.  Nevertheless, the film did have an immediate impact on the filmmaking community in China.  In this connection, Tian Zhuangzhuang remarked in 1986 that [2]
“If it wasn’t for Yellow Earth, then there wouldn’t have been the whole debate about film aesthetics . . . [the film] represents the future of Chinese cinema now.”                     
And ever since then Yellow Earth has been, over the years, the subject of scrutiny concerning various aspects of its presentation and of multiple interpretations concerning its underlying meanings [3,4].  I will get to some of those interpretations later, but first I will give a basic picture of the film’s narrative, which can be considered to play out through five segments.

1.  Early Spring, 1939
In 1937 the opposing Kuomintang Nationalist Party (KMT) forces and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) forces realized that they would have to cooperate in order to fight against the invading Japanese in the Second Sino-Japanese War.  By 1939 the KMT had recognized the autonomy of the CCP soldier to cross over the Shaanxi-Gansun-Ningxia border region.  In the early spring of that year, a soldier from the CCP’s Eighth Route Army, Gu Qing (played by Xue Bai), is shown to have travelled 200 miles from CCP-controlled Yan’an to the northern KMT-controlled area of Shaanxi, Shanbei.  His mission is to collect local peasants’ folk songs that the CCP soldiers can then sing and affirm their commonality with the local people.

In the opening shots, Gu is seen walking over the barren Loess Plateau of that region.  When he happens upon a peasant wedding procession, he takes out his notebook and prepares to record the festivities.  The people involved in the procession appear to be enjoying the party, but the red-hooded 13-year-old bride looks glum when briefly seen and clearly represents just an artefact, not a person, in this social setting.  Gu is invited to the wedding banquet, where the guests are served plates of wooden fish, because real fish are not available to these people. During the feast Gu jots down a wedding song he hears sung by a village crooner.
We next see another 13-year-old girl from the same village, Cuiqiao (Wang Xueqi), carrying out her routine task of walking three miles with buckets to the Yellow River in order to fetch water for her poor family.  Along the way, she sings a plaintive song:
“Among human beings, a girl’s life is the most pitiable. 
  Pity the poor girls, the poor girls.”   
2.  With Cuiqiao’s Family
Gu Qing decides to remain in that village to collect songs, and he winds up staying with Cuiqiao’s small family, which includes her widowed father (played by Tan Tuo) and her shy, almost mute, younger brother, Hanhan (Liu Quiang).  Gu starts out helping the family members with their plowing and chores, and he gradually gets to know them better.  Their conversations exhibit the contrasts between the modernist Communist and traditional peasant ways.  On one occasion Gu tells the father that in the Communist south, girls are liberated and free to choose their marriage partners.  In the south, Gu tells him, girls are not for sale.  Then they have the following exchange that tellingly reflects their contrasting perspectives:
Gu Qing:     “The world must change.  The south has changed. 
                      North China must change, too.”

The Father:  “We fathers have our own rules”
On another occasion when Cuiqiao mentions to Gu that noone in their village is literate, he  tells her that in the Communist-held south, all boys and girls are being taught how to read and write.  These positive comments, along with Gu’s general upbeat demeanor, seem to inspire both Cuiqiao and Hanhan and make them more cheerful.  Gu even gets Hanhan to talk and sing, which leads to the boy singing a bizarre bed-wetting song.  Gu responds to this by teaching the boy to sing an optimistic Communist song.

3.  Upcoming Events
However, Cuiqiao, who was betrothed to an older man as a small child, learns that her future in-laws want the arranged marriage to take place soon, in April.  This is evidently alarming to her, and when she has a chance to speak with Gu alone, she asks him if his army needs any women who can sing.  (Gu answers in the affirmative.)  In fact all along, Cuiqiao has been shown singing beautiful songs when she is alone, often with lyrics that she has composed herself, and we know  that she is a good singer.  But the songs of these people tend to be sad songs, reflecting their generally fatalistic perspectives on life. 

Then Gu announces that it is time for him to leave the village and return to his army in the south.  When he departs, both Hanhan and Cuigiao separately sneak out to join him on the road and go with him.  Gu sends Hanhan back home, but when he meets Cuiqiao further on down the road, she tells him she wants to join his army (and thereby flee the grim servitude of a loveless marriage). Gu tells he is not allowed by his superiors to take her with him, but he will seek official permission from his unit and return for her later.  Cuiqiao asks him to promise to return by April, and then as he walks away, she sings an optimistic song for him.

4.  Departure
In April, Gu hasn’t arrived yet, and Cuiqiao is briefly shown being subjected to the traditional bride-demeaning wedding ceremony like that which we had seen at the beginning of the film.  Cuiqiao’s glum circumstances are contrasted with parallel scenes showing Gu back in Yan’an watching soldiers from the Eighth Route Army performing a vigorous coordinated dance celebrating their ferocity.  In the north it is all passivity, while in the south it is potency.
Shortly thereafter, Hanhan is seen carrying out the chore that used to be done by Cuiqiao, going to the Yellow River to fetch water.  At the river bank he sees Cuiqiao, who has sneaked over there with the intention of escaping by crossing the big river in a small boat and going to join the Eighth Route Army on her own.  Hanhan warns her that it is too dangerous to cross the big river on her own, but Cuiqiao can’t be deterred.  She gets into the boat and rows off into the river waters, singing an optimistic Communist song as she goes.  As she disappears into the evening dusk, Hanhan on the shore can still hear her singing, but her voice suddenly ceases in mid verse.  Hanhan calls out with alarm into the darkness

5.   Gu Qing Returns
In something of a coda to the film, Gu Qing is shown returning to the village and finding Cuiqiao’s home empty.  All the male peasants have gone out onto the loess hills to pray fervently to the Dragon Lord in the sky for rain.  The fanatical supplicants are all bare-chested and wearing ceremonial head wreaths of leaves.  Among the crowd is Hanhan, who turns his head and sees Gu Qing on a hill way in the back.  He tries to go back towards Gu, but he is unable to work his way through the swarming crowd that is sweeping everyone forward towards some unseen destination dictated by their superstitious ritual.  The final shot of the film shows the empty loess hills and Cuiqiao’s wistful voice in the background singing a verse of hope for a Communist future.

Thus the ending of Yellow Earth yields a somewhat problematic verdict concerning the efficacy of the Communist message on the stubborn peasants’ way of life.  Cuiqiao appears to have died trying to escape her confining circumstance and find imagined liberation with the Eighth Route Army.  And Hanhan seems unable to reunite with Gu at the end.  In fact the way those final shots are composed suggests that the image of Gu at the end may be only a mirage.  So the path to salvation is elusive here. 

Even Chen Kaige, himself, seems to have been, in retrospect, of two minds about the film’s message [5].  He had started with Ke Lan’s uncomplicated novel Echo in the Deep Valley, but after spending a month in northern Shaanxi in early 1984 researching the local way of life there, he made considerable adaptations to Ke Lan’s story [4].  And he added to the story a moody tone, which is reflected in the film’s evocative folk-song motif, the atmospheric soundtrack music by Jiping Zhao, and Zhang Yimou’s context-grounded cinematography.  In particular, Zhang Yimou’s many long shots giving considerable screen space in the foreground to the hilly and dusty loess terrain maintain a context and feeling of desolation throughout the film.

So although a straightforward interpretation of Yellow Earth might see the film as just a stark confrontation between modern thinking and backwardness, when we watch the film we can see that it is not quite that simple.  In fact we might say that there are two main perspectives that are present in the film [4]:
  • Sympathy for the authentic integrity of the native people and their connection to the Chinese essence.
  • Categorical, reductionist judgement of the native peasants’ backwardness and need of reform.
And critics suggest that both perspectives are present here at the same time.  Commenting in this regard, W. K. Cheng has said [4]:
“‘Yellow Earth’, therefore, is courageous, not just in the sense that it shuns the comfort of certainty by shirking the socialist formula, but also because in doing so, it exposes itself to the nether world of ambiguities, incongruities, uncertainties and anguish that has accompanied the Chinese quest for modern nationhood in resalable memory.  What makes ‘Yellow Earth’ so intriguing and, for many, emotionally arresting is not that it restores certainty to the Chinese collective identity, quite the contrary to Chen Kaige’s apparent intent, but rather that the film’s symbolic intensity reenacts the internal tensions in the modern predicament of national reconstruction.”
Other critics have looked at the film, from a postmodernist perspective, as a piece of abstract text to be analysed [6,7].  In this connection Esther Yau has mulled over the curious fact that two of the most dramatic elements in the narrative – Cuiqiao’s grim marriage ceremony and Cuiqiao’s ultimate disappearance in the water – are glossed over and barely covered in the cinematic presentation [7].  Hence apparently to her, the hidden meaning of the film must be found elsewhere.

But I think perhaps the most fruitful critical path to follow lies in the Daoist direction.  Along this line of thinking, the modernist Communist and traditionalist peasant perspectives can be considered to be embodiments of the Daoist yin-yang polarity [8,9].  According to this formulation,
  • yin symbolically suggests the notions of femininity, dark, wetness, cold, passivity, disintegration, etc.
  • yang symbolically suggests the notions of masculinity, light, warmth, dryness, activity, etc.
According to this way of seeing things, the peasant, traditionalist perspective embodies the yin principle, and the Communist, modernist perspective embodies the yang principle.  But it is not as though one should choose one of these to the exclusion of the other.  Both yin and yang are needed and must be maintained in the proper balance.  In this connection Mary Ann Farquhar has remarked [9]:
“A Daoist reading of Yellow Earth gives a meaning that is seen and felt directly, a meaning beyond the images and words. The complexity and depth of the human lives are rendered in stark images against the vast backdrop of the natural world. Minimalized tone, colour and composition are reminiscent of the restraint of classical Chinese painting. Songs and silence overlay the imagery and evoke the lyricism and elusiveness of traditional Chinese poetry.“
Anyway, whatever take you want to adopt, Yellow Earth offers a fascinating view of the complex Chinese society undergoing dramatic change.

  1. Walter Goodman, “China’s ‘Yellow Earth’", The New York Times,  (11 April 1986).   
  2. Yang Ping, “A Director Who is Trying to Change the Audience; A Chat with Young Director, Tian Zhuangzhuang”, in Perspectives on Chinese Cinema, (ed. and trans. by Chris Berry), British Film Institute”, (1991), p. 127.
  3. Dan Edwards, “Framing the Heavy Weight of History: Yellow Earth”, Senses of Cinema, (May 2015).       
  4. W. K. Cheng, “Imagining the People: ‘Yellow Earth’ and the Enigma of Nationalist Consciousness”, The China Review, vol. 2, no. 2, (Fall 2002), pp. 37-63.  
  5. Chen Kaige, “Quanli zou Shaanbei” (“Trekking Northern Shaanxi for a Thousand li”), Dianying Yishu, no. 4, (1985).
  6. Chris Berry, “Neither One Thing nor Another: Toward a Study of the Viewing Subject and Chinese Cinema in the 1980s”, New Chinese Cinemas, (ed. by Nick Browne, Paul G. Pickowicz, Vivian Sobchack, Esther Yau), Cambridge University Press, (1994), pp. 88-113.
  7. Esther C. M. Yau, “‘Yellow Earth’: Western Analysis and a Non-western Text”, in Perspectives on Chinese Cinema, (ed. by C. Berry), British Film Institute, (1991), pp. 22-33.
  8. Roy Stafford, “Yellow Earth (China 1984)”, The Case for Global Film, (3 May 2007).    
  9. Mary Ann Farquhar, “The ‘hidden’ gender in ‘Yellow Earth’”, Screen, volume 33, issue 2, (1 July 1992).

Chen Kaige

Films of Chen Kaige:

“Badla” - Sujoy Ghosh (2019)

Badla (“Revenge”, 2019) is a whodunit crime drama directed by Indian filmmaker Sujoy Ghosh.  This film, which has been well received [1], is a remake of the popular Spanish film The Invisible Guest (Contratiempo, 2016) that was written and directed by Oriol Paulo.  But Ghosh, already known for an earlier crime thriller, Kahaani (“Story”, 2012), made some small but perhaps significant changes to Oriol Paulo’s original script when he made Badla.  For one thing, he reversed the genders of two of the main characters, and this seems to me to have been a dramatically effective decision.  In addition, even though Badla has a virtually all-Indian cast, Ghosh set and shot this film in Scotland, a locale that for Indian audiences probably lends a slightly exotic external atmosphere to the film.

The key thing about all whodunit mysteries is that a crime has been committed, and most of the plot is devoted to unravelling just who is the guilty party.  The reader/viewer is presented with all the evidence along the way and is invited to solve the crime him- or herself.  But Badla is not just an ordinary whodunit – it belongs to the popular and tantalizing subgenre known as the “locked-room mystery” [2].  In these kinds of stories, a crime (usually a murder) has been committed inside a room that is known to have been locked from the inside, and the circumstantial evidence either points to a single culprit who was inside the room at the time (often it is the story’s protagonist, who ultimately turns out to be innocent) or leaves everyone in the dark as to how the crime could possibly have been committed.  Early elements of the locked-room mystery can be traced back to Edgar Allan Poe's story "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" (1841), but the idea of a specific genre along these lines reached its heyday a century later with the works of John Dickson Carr [3].
Badla is indeed an exemplar of a locked-room mystery, and a particularly complex one at that.  In this story a young woman awakens from having been knocked unconscious and finds herself in a locked hotel room with a dead body.  She is immediately accused by the police of having murdered this person.  The film’s narrative concerns the woman’s efforts to prove her innocence.
Badla begins with the accused woman, Naina Sethi (played by Taapsee Pannu), having been released on bail, meeting with a famous senior lawyer, Badal Gupta (Amitabh Bachchan), who has reputedly never lost a case and who has been recruited by Naina’s personal attorney, Jimmy Punjabi (Manav Kaul), to prepare her legal defence.  Time is critical – they may have only three hours to prepare Naina for an expected police examination – and before Gupta is willing to take on the case, he wants Naina to tell him everything she knows so that he can get her ready for her upcoming testimony.  The film is then structured around their ensuing conversation of several hours, which features a number of dramatized flashbacks and descriptive accounts which may or may not represent the truth.

In fact truth and lying are central themes of this film, and the viewer must struggle with conflicting and contradictory accounts, all dramatized, of what actually happened over the preceding few days.

We quickly learn that Naina Sethi is a very successful young Glasgow businesswoman and is a supposedly happily married mother of a young child.  But she tells Gupta that she had been having an extramarital love affair with commercial photographer Arjun Joseph (Tony Luke).  Recently, she goes on, she and Arjun had been faced with a blackmail demand from an unknown accuser who threatened to reveal their affair unless he or she was paid a substantial amount of money.  They were instructed to bring the money to a remote hotel room in order to keep their secrets hidden.  But after travelling there and checking into the room, they were both ambushed from behind and knocked out.  When Naina woke up, she discovered Arjun’s dead body on the floor.  When the police came, they found that the hotel room was locked from the inside and no evidence of anyone breaking in.

Naina tells Gupta that what she has just told him is the whole story, but Gupta isn’t buying it.  He thinks she is holding some things back, and we soon see that he is right.  It turns out that Naina and Arjun had also been involved in an auto accident that had resulted in the death of the other driver, and since there had been no witnesses, they had chosen to cover up the evidence.  Over the course of this story, we see various conflicting, dramatized versions of what happened on that occasion.  In addition, we learn that Arjun had by chance happened on to the deceased driver’s parents, Rani Kaur (Amrita Singh) and her husband Nimbi (Tanveer Ghani).  These two elderly characters are also hypothesized to have been involved in various malicious scenarios to avenge their son’s death.

As the viewer watches the conflicting dramatizations of these various accounts told by Naina or suggested by Gupta, it becomes clear that both Naina and Badal Gupta are lying on multiple occasions.  Some of the viewers may struggle to come to a coherent understanding of what actually did happen – and that, after all, is presumably the fun of watching a whodunit.  At the close, there is a surprise ending to the whole thing, and the astute viewer may have picked up enough clues along the way to have accurately predicted the ironic outcome.  You can try your luck.

So the whole of Badla can be considered to have been something of a game between Naina and Gupta, but with deadly stakes.  Naina wants to avoid being convicted of murder and is willing to lie to save herself.  Badal Gupta wants to preserve his loss-free legal case record, and he, too, is apparently willing to lie in order to do it.  But as the viewer will eventually find out, there is something more that is going on here.
Certainly the enjoyment of watching a tale like Badla comes from the telling of it, and I must admit that the telling on this occasion is not always perfect.  Some of the characterizations are a bit weak, and some of the situations are not narratively motivated to a believable degree.  In addition, there are many unmotivated editing cuts, particularly during conversations.  These pointless changes in point of view only distract the viewer from following the narrative flow.
But, on the other hand, I must say that Taapsee Pannu’s performance as Naina Sethi is outstanding.  She realistically delivers a range of subtly expressed emotive responses across the variety of situations in which she is dramatically involved, sometimes as innocent victim and sometimes as willful manipulator.  And it is her emotionally nuanced performance throughout that holds Badla together as a reasonably compelling narrative.

  1. Murtaza Ali Khan, ‘'Badla' Movie Review: Amitabh Bachchan shines in Sujoy Ghosh's engaging whodunit”, A Potpourri of Vestiges, (8 March 2019).   
  2. “Locked-room mystery”, Wikipedia, (23 July 2019).    
  3. “John Dickson Carr”, Wikipedia, (21 July 2019).   

Sujoy Ghosh

Films of Sujoy Ghosh:
  • Badla - Sujoy Ghosh (2019)

“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).