“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?
★★★★

Notes:
  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).  

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