“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).