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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.