NYFF Masterworks: (Re)Inventing China: A New Cinema for a New Society, 1949 – 1966
At the Walter Reade Theater, September 26 – October 6
More than two decades after the debuts of Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou signaled Chinese cinema's emergence as an international phenomenon, cultural gatekeepers like the Film Society of Lincoln Center remain as invested as ever in its destiny. But since much of Western film criticism maintains an inflexibly auteurist persuasion, the Fifth and Sixth Generations still receive the lion's share of the attention, and have largely been packaged as a lineage of heroic artists struggling against an authoritarian regime. This approach leaves the preceding decades of PRC production to be dismissed for their intolerance of individual talent and their adherence to socialist dogma. Films from the "Seventeen Years" era—which began with the establishment of the People's Republic in 1949 and ended with the outbreak of the Cultural Revolution—are routinely overlooked, on the one hand because the vast majority are inaccessible to English-speaking viewers, and on the other because critics assume them to be the province of history and scholarship rather than of great aesthetic interest.
This year's Masterworks sidebar at the New York Film Festival includes the program "(Re)Inventing China," a feast of twenty titles that goes a long way in proving how much this indifference is our loss. Following in the footsteps of two previous Chinese retrospectives mounted at Lincoln Center in the past decade, this extraordinary line-up illustrates the negotiations of government-imposed myth that have constituted this particular "national cinema." While that loaded term has lost some of its relevance as a critical framework in our globalizing world, where notions of the national have never seemed more unstable and illusory, the continuing fascination that cinephiles share for China demonstrates the concept's lasting appeal. From the early propaganda films to the increasingly daring contemporary scene, it is impossible to ignore the ever-present specter of nationalist politics that has shaped post-1949 cinema and made it one of the most visible portraits of the mainland's growing pains.
Throughout most of the twentieth century, China was swept up in a revolutionary spirit that manifested itself in different, often contradictory guises. Appropriately, the films showcased in this series share a deep anxiety about a constantly shifting "enemy"- at times identified as feudalism; at others, Western imperialism or the Kuomintang government. Two of the most urgent calls for radical social change are adaptations of literary classics—Lu Xun's 1924 story New Year's Sacrifice and Ba Jin's 1933 novel Family—both of which are incendiary attacks against the alleged backwardness and misogyny of Confucian values. Chen Xihe and Ye Ming's version of Family stands not only as one the series' most beautifully crafted selections, but also as its sole glimpse into the woes of a young educated class longing to break free from outmoded traditions. The oppressive weight of filial duty, depicted with an anguish that at times seems bitingly humorous, drives a venerable clan to its demise and three brothers to their separate fates. As the film builds toward a climactic howl of pain in which one family elder after another turns demonic, it allows itself a few dreamlike moments of emotional intimacy that border on poetic realism. Softening the bitter tale's polemical raison d'etre, the usually static camera is set into swooning motion in scenes of romantic longing-which, coming from an era of forced self-sacrifice and groupthink, amounts to a subtly subversive affirmation of personal desire.
New Year's Sacrifice is equally anti-Confucian, but instead of focusing on the identity crisis of upper-class men, Sang Hu's film joins a long tradition of Chinese cinema that uses female struggle as a metaphor for social upheaval. Yet another chronicle of hell on Earth, the plot revolves around a peasant woman who is widowed, sold into marriage with another man, then widowed again. Actress Bai Yang is the picture of utter helplessness, with a wide-open face that drives home the heroine's often maddening naïveté-an image that stands in sharp contrast to the pioneering, fist-raising "new women" of 30s Shanghai cinema. The film itself is a frustrating experience for Western audiences accustomed to disdaining didacticism in their art. Its breathtaking crescendos of melodrama are periodically grounded by an authoritiative but anonymous male narrator, who concludes by informing us that this cycle of suffering will be a distant memory in the new socialist utopia.
Chinese cinema has long been stereotyped as one of the world's most miserabilist, and these message-laden tragedies certainly don't offer much to change that perception. But the newly politicized consciousness of the oppressed classes is also placed at the center of the period's more lightweight fare, much of which is committed to the socialist fantasy of a unified, happy-go-lucky citizenry that brings even the most marginalized voices (including ethnic minorities, as in the exuberant musical Five Golden Flowers) into the fold. Li Shuang Shuang is a prime example of educational entertainment, a rural girl-power comedy that presents the flipside to New Year's Sacrifice. Placed alongside each other, these two versions of female experience form a narrative of Chinese history that moves from the agonies of feudalism to a new, redemptive political culture, in which women become the vehicles for an entire community's reeducation in socialist ideals. The title character of Li Shuang Shuang not only proves herself to be the savviest member of her commune, but also takes full advantage of the new society's promise to be more open to dissenting opinion. While clearly taking inspiration from Hollywood romantic comedies, the film envisions a world in which romance exists only for healthy and utilitarian ends. It is only after Shuang Shuang has solved the problems of morality and work ethic within her village that she is able to reconfirm her love for her gullible, dim-witted husband.
In the midst of this ideologically driven cinema, the urge among Western viewers is to locate the master, the one exceptional artist who can personalize these foreign concepts for us. Many critics have zeroed in on director Xie Jin, a towering figure in the Chinese film industry who died last year. This NYFF sidebar houses its own miniature Xie retrospective, with screenings of four of his most popular films, including the Communist blockbuster The Red Detachment of Women. His masterpiece is Two Stage Sisters, a melodrama about the opera world starring the great Xie Fang. Rehashing a common plotline in socialist cinema, in which the personal experiences of women are used to justify the call for revolution, the film chronicles the careers of two actresses struggling against their impoverished backgrounds. One chooses to sell her soul for a superficially glamorous lifestyle, while the other perseveres in her craft and embraces feminism by joining the revolutionary cause. Reconciling beloved theatrical traditions with the Communist insistence on "newness," Two Stage Sisters also weaves opera and cinema together in a way that enriches our understanding of both art forms.
Xie is one of the most gifted visual stylists of the period, but for viewers in search of a more personally inflected filmmaking, Shi Hui's This Life of Mine will be the ultimate discovery. As an expression of the New China's spiritual turmoil, the film engages in intense moral inquiries and ambiguities that are unparalleled in socialist cinema, even as it tries to toe the party line. In a lead performance as astonishing for its unforced humor as for its emotional candor, Shi plays a policeman who stands witness to fifty years of Chinese history, and eventually must come to terms with his complacency in the midst of pervasive political corruption. The question is raised: How can a man live a moral life in a society that offers him no choices? And how do we acknowledge this lack of agency without letting ourselves off the hook? It may be tempting to feel superior to the "Seventeen Years" era and its cultish promotion of the Communist gospel, especially because of what we now know about the disasters of Maoist China. After all, the injustices that these films attribute to villains in the past would continue not only under Mao but into the twenty-first century. Films like This Life of Mine reinsert into all the bloodless rhetoric the complex feelings of loss, fear, and self-doubt that have changed and multipled across the country's many social transformations. What they show us through the rigor of their art are the profound uncertainties lying beneath our historical assumptions.