Commentary Magazine


Enter the Chinese

The word “Chinese” has recently acquired an odd dissonance in the movie world. Films of extraordinary quality, made in mainland China, have been nominated in America for Academy Awards and in Europe have carried off top prizes at the Cannes, Venice, and Berlin film festivals (the big three). Indeed, China has now completely usurped the place of Japan as the most prestigious filmmaker in the Far East. At the same time, films made by Chinese-American directors, and dealing with Chinese-American subject matter, have reached a level of truly stunning mediocrity. The most recent example is The Joy Luck Club, so sentimental and so lachrymose that it has conquered a “crossover” white female audience which appears to have been silently waiting for a return of the 1930’s “woman’s” movie.

Produced by Oliver Stone (Platoon, JFK), who with his appalling new Saigon-based Heaven and Earth gives evidence of considering himself a qualified expert on things Asian, The Joy Luck Club is the story of four young Chinese-American women who meet once a week to play mah-jongg with their mothers, all of whom are immigrants born in China. Faithfully adapted from Amy Tan’s best-selling novel, and directed by Hong Kong-born Wayne Wang (Chan Is Missing), The Joy Luck Club gives us, one by one, the soap-opera lives of each of the four young women, and even more so the grandiose, decade-spanning, intercontinental soap-opera lives of each of the four mothers: truly global soap.

All the older women in this movie have suffered as only women suffer, and all sacrifice greatly so that their daughters may attain happiness. We witness suffering from the depredations of war, suffering from the depredations of men, the yearning of mother for daughter, and of daughter for mother—altogether, eight tales of love, longing, loss, sacrifice, abandonment, infanticide, and high intergenerational emotion.

At the film’s conclusion, one of our four young ladies makes a climactic trip to China, and on the dock in Shanghai achieves an ultimate reunion with her two long-lost Chinese sisters. Commenting on this scene, Variety predicted that it would “leave millions teary-eyed at the powerful if sentimental fadeout.” And, lo, it has come to pass. Millions have been shallowly moved. Millions have been left teary-eyed. Having surpassed the box-office returns of both Jane Campion’s modish The Piano and Martin Scorsese’s remarkable filming of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, The Joy Luck Club in March seemed to be gaining even on Wayne’s World 2.

In The Joy Luck Club, more white Americans have seen more Asian-Americans in a movie than at any time since MGM’s 1937 version of Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth, starring Luise Rainer and Paul Muni. Only this time, the characters are played by real Asians. So I suppose that whatever else one may say of it, The Joy Luck Club is a historic event of a sort.

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Meanwhile, the real China has been witnessing historic cinematographic events of a rather different order. In 1966, Mao’s Cultural Revolution, out of hatred for the country’s educated class and traditional Chinese art, closed the Beijing Film Academy after it had graduated only four classes. Two years after Mao’s death it was reopened, and received thousands of applications from young Chinese. In 1982, after a sixteen-year hiatus, the Academy graduated its fifth class, whose members became the founding fathers of the new Chinese cinema—which soon styled itself the “Fifth Generation.”

In his “Origins of the New Chinese Cinema” (in Perspectives on Chinese Cinema, distributed by Indiana University Press), Tony Rayns writes: “What makes the Fifth Generation different from earlier generations in the Communist Chinese cinema? The short answer is: the life stories of its directors.”

These directors were all born after 1949 and the Communist victory in the civil war, and had no firsthand experience of the old regime. All were from the educated upper class, and were little inclined to accept at face value crude propagandistic simplicities. Under the Cultural Revolution, they were all subjected to the public humiliation of being compelled to denounce their educated parents and teachers as enemies of the Chinese people. This, I am told, is a humiliation one does not forget. As members of the educated class, the future Fifth Generation directors were sentenced to years of manual labor, often in remote areas of the countryside, to “learn from the people.”

The only “culture” to which these young men were exposed in their adolescence was the endless monotony of idiot-simple didactic movies, theater, and fiction, and of course the sacred Thoughts of Chairman Mao. Even in the preceding period, an impoverished Asian version of Soviet “socialist realism” had held the field, with China producing such bombastic and stultifying films as The Red Battalion of Women and The Girl With White Hair.

When Mao died and the Gang of Four fell, Chinese cinema did not improve immediately. The hack Soviet-style filmmakers’ idea of a daring new movie was Love and Inheritance, about the daughter of the head of an ophthalmology institute who forgives her boyfriend’s earlier actions as a Red Guard and realizes that her dedication to medicine need not preclude a more universal idealism.

So China was really waiting for the Fifth Generation. Asked recently what films have influenced him most, director Zhang Yimou, the Fifth Generation’s young giant (China’s Akira Kurosawa, if you will), answered with no hesitation: the “really dreadful” movies made in China in the 1960’s and 1970’s. “When we were in film school,” he said, “we swore to each other we would never make films like that.”

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Of the many extraordinary films produced by the Fifth Generation, some have not been widely seen in the West. Wu Ziniu’s The Last Day of Winter shows for the first time China’s gulag, a vast prison labor-camp in the northwestern desert. Chen Kaige’s seminal The Yellow Earth (with Zhang Yimou as co-author and cinematographer) examines skeptically one of the most cherished of Chinese Communist mythic events, the 1930’s enlightenment of backward village communities by the “People’s Army.” Tian Zhuangzhuang’s The Horse Thief and On the Hunting Ground are devoted to the lives of national minorities in Tibet and Inner Mongolia, previously presented as decidedly retarded in comparison with the Han Chinese.

Although such films clearly have a point of view, the most powerful underlying characteristic of all the Fifth Generation movies is that they do not preach. Having been burned, first, by Soviet-style socialist realism, and, second and even more severely, by the Cultural Revolution, Fifth Generation directors seem quite allergic to didacticism. Their films do not contain a raisonneur, nor does one hear anywhere else the voice of the author explaining everything. The Fifth Generation trusts the story to tell itself. Consequently, as with major literary works, people often come away from Fifth Generation movies with differing impressions.

The attitude of the Chinese authorities toward these young filmmakers was and remains ambivalent. Although Beijing still describes itself as practicing “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” it has permitted many of the most important Fifth Generation movies to be financed in whole or in part by capitalist money from Hong Kong or Taiwan (unthinkable in the past). Taiwan in particular has developed a raging case of what the Taiwanese themselves call “mainland fever,” a fascination with their Chinese past.

But the Beijing censor still hovers. Major films have been banned and unbanned, then banned and unbanned again—much as political dissidents are released from prison, rearrested, then released again. In particular it seems permissible to denigrate the Cultural Revolution, but with moderation, as long as one does not make it appear too vile.

Thus, of the two movies I am about to discuss in depth, one, Farewell My Concubine, which shared the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival with The Piano and is now a hit on the U.S. art-movie circuit, was screened by Deng Xiaoping himself. He appeared to give his permission to release the film after the pruning of sensitive passages—but the decision was then reversed (the film was banned), and then reversed again (the film was released but only after further pruning).

Similarly with another movie, Ju Dou, directed by Zhang Yimou. In China this film was banned because its most repellent character is a sadistic old man who beats his beautiful young wife. Viewed in an “Aesopian” manner (i.e., as allegory), the film seems a condemnation of China’s elderly leadership. Anomalously, however, while banning the movie in China, the authorities allowed it to circle the globe, winning prizes abroad and playing to high praise and substantial commmercial success.

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Farewell My Concubine, not the best of the Fifth Generation movies, takes its name from a celebrated Chinese opera in which the emperor and his favorite concubine are deeply in love; in the final act of the opera, after much stylized Chinese singing, the devoted concubine, her defeated emperor having been sentenced to death, commits a highly theatrical suicide. As is the case in classical Chinese opera, the concubine is played by a man.

Neatly enough, our film, based on a best-selling book by the Hong Kong novelist and journalist Lilian Lee and directed by forty-one-year-old Chen Kaige, tells the story of two young orphans trained from childhood for caste-like careers in Chinese opera. Of course they grow up to play the emperor and his concubine in the eponymous opera. The movie follows the lives of these two orphans, Dieyi and Xiaolou, beginning with their acceptance as children at the opera school in China’s warlord period. It continues through the Japanese invasion, the Chinese civil war, the triumph of Communism, and then some very hard times indeed brought about by the Cultural Revolution.

Even as a child, Dieyi, more frail and thought to be more effeminate, is forced into female roles. Beating seems to be a large part of the training. (But there is also Dieyi’s mother, a prostitute who cannot afford to keep her son and, when he is refused admittance to the opera school because he has a sixth finger, promptly whacks it off.) Life gets even harder when, after the orphans have grown up to be stars of Beijing Opera, Dieyi, a homosexual, wants to be Xiaolou’s concubine in real life as well as on the stage and is driven wild with jealousy when Xiaolou marries a beautiful prostitute (played by China’s leading film star, Gong Li).

Then comes the Cultural Revolution. Both Dieyi and Xiaolou, practitioners of an “aristocratic” art, are dragged through the streets by Red Guards and severely beaten. In a grandiose scene they are forced to perform ritual self-criticism, confess to imaginary crimes, and hysterically denounce each other. Then both are sent off to learn how authentic and beautiful life can be by working with their hands in a labor camp. Eventually the regime softens and they return to Beijing and their former eminence.

The movie’s final scene takes place in 1977, after Mao’s death and the fall of the Gang of Four, with the Cultural Revolution finally at an end. The two actors—in full costume, one as the defeated emperor, the other as his devoted concubine—face each other in an empty rehearsal hall. As the music swells, Dieyi commits a theatrical suicide, even after the manner of the concubine he has spent his life playing. Xiaolou is stricken, even as the emperor was stricken.

But why the suicide? Why should Dieyi so regret the end of the Cultural Revolution under which he (and China) suffered so much? Lilian Lee’s novel ends quite differently. Dieyi and Xiaolou, both refugees now in Hong Kong, elderly men by this time and having lived through rather a lot together, meet by chance in the street. Almost strangers, they exchange a few words, then each goes his separate way. Although the movie is beautifully photographed, costumed, and acted, with exotic Chinese color galore, the ending is theatrical and senseless.

This is characteristic of director Chen Kaige, who has done a stint at NYU’s film school and knows his way around American show business. Again and again in Farewell My Concubine he goes for grandiose spectacle, repeatedly arranging chronological coincidences among events of the opera, events in the private lives of his characters, and the great events which have overtaken China in his lifetime. The result is an overwrought movie given to empty dramatic effects. (As J. Hoberman put it in the Village Voice, Farewell My Concubine represents “the second coming of Irving Thalberg”—in my view, a realistic assessment.) It is a pity that this is the only Fifth Generation film currently in general release in the United States.

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The grand master of the new Chinese cinema is not Chen Kaige but Zhang Yimou, forty-two, who, having lost ten years of his life to the Cultural Revolution, is now considered to have directed in five years no fewer than four masterpieces: Red Sorghum, Ju Dou, Raise the Red Lantern, and, most recently, The Story of Qiu-Ju.

Zhang’s first film, Red Sorghum (based on still another novel, this one published not in Hong Kong but in Taiwan), is set in the savage, bandit-ridden Chinese northeast during the warlord period in the 1920’s. It won the Golden Bear in Berlin (the top award), an achievement much written about in China—where the film was also a great commercial success. His second movie, Ju Dou, nominated for Best Foreign Film at Hollywood’s Academy Awards, was Zhang’s “anti-gerontocracy” film, and, as I have mentioned above, it was banned in China for years.

Raise the Red Lantern, which like Red Sorghum and Ju Dou also takes place under the ancien régime, is the story of the labyrinthine inner workings and jealousies of a whole courtyard of concubines of one very rich man. The red lantern is regularly raised before the suite of the concubine with whom the lord and master is spending the night. Ostensibly a criticism of the mores of an earlier era, the film, in the “Aesopian” manner, can be seen as a study of the rivalries, conniving, and treachery within a highly competitive but closed social system—not unlike that of Communist China’s walled-off leadership. Raise the Red Lantern, like Ju Dou nominated for Best Foreign Film at the Academy Awards, was similarly banned for years in China.

A documentary-style thriller Zhang slipped in among his major films in 1989 was Operation Cougar, never shown outside East Asia. This is the story of an air hijacking carried out by a group calling itself the “Taiwan Revolutionary Army Front.” The picture’s most notable feature is the linking-up of Taiwanese and mainland-Chinese anti-terrorist teams to overcome the hijackers, a kind of inter-regime cooperation that has never occurred, or has at least never been admitted, but is curious to contemplate in a movie approved by Beijing.

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In The Story of Qiu-Ju, which won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival (the top prize), Zhang deals at last in a serious work with present-day China. The movie is wonderfully acted and directed, and its vivid portrayal of Chinese peasant life is quite unforgettable. The most sophisticated of Zhang’s films, it was also the most difficult to get past the censors—and the one in which he had to make a notable concession in his presentation of China’s political system.

In a society much of which is still collectivized, and on which the hand of political control still lies heavy, Qiu-Ju is the story of an individual’s quest for justice, and for respect. The scene is the once-isolated Chinese northwest, now a bizarre jumble of the old and the new. Human beings still sweat under heavy loads and haul wagons like animals, all the while constantly assaulted by roaring buses, hordes of hard-pedaling cyclists, and private automobiles honking them out of the way.

In the midst of a crowded market town, Qiu-Ju’s husband lies doubled up on a two-wheeled farm wagon drawn by a plump-faced young countrywoman, his sister. Qiu-Ju (played by the beautiful Gong Li) is many months pregnant, but she and her sister-in-law have hauled her husband from their farm village to the nearby market town to see a doctor, for before the story begins a terrible thing has happened. In their village, Chief Wang, the appointed Communist-party official who runs everything, has knocked down an unauthorized shed built by Qiu-Ju’s husband for drying chili peppers. When the husband remarks disdainfully that Chief Wang has “raised only hens,” a reference to his having four daughters but no sons, Chief Wang, brutal and abusive, responds by kicking him in the testicles.

Although her husband seems to be on the mend, Qiu-Ju is not satisfied. She is poor. She is illiterate. She is “only” a woman. But an injustice has been done, and she demands an apology from Chief Wang. He refuses, sneers at her contemptuously, declaring, “I am the law.” Qiu-Ju lodges a formal complaint against him with the local police, but they too can do little. “At least say some kind words to her,” the police tell Chief Wang, but he refuses coldly.

From this point on, the film becomes Qiu-Ju’s innocent but stubborn quest for justice. She does not want vengeance. She does not want to see Chief Wang punished. She does not want money. She just wants to have respect shown by a simple apology. As Chief Wang will not apologize, however, Qiu-Ju single-mindedly sets out through ever-higher levels of Chinese officialdom to achieve her aim.

My understanding is that we are not supposed to think Qiu-Ju highly intelligent, but rather possessed of a simple but strong moral sense. Her face, when she is in a confrontation with officials or abroad in big cities to which she is not accustomed, is a study of caution and watchfulness. Purposefully tramping all over northwest China, or hitching rides on wagons and farm trucks, Qiu-Ju has something about her of Dostoevsky’s Prince Myshkin in The Idiot. In time even her family becomes exasperated with Qiu-Ju; but she will not give up.

A ruling principle of irresponsible bureaucratic systems, particularly authoritarian ones, is that the higher a private person goes in seeking some service, the more aloof and the less accommodating the officials tend to be. Here is the great falsification in The Story of Qiu-Ju. For as Qiu-Ju proceeds from local officials, to “the district,” to “the city,” the Communist-party officials get nicer and nicer. The higher she goes, the kinder, gentler, and more courteous they become, always willing to hear the grievances of the poorest and humblest in their domain. They never take bribes. They lend Qiu-Ju their official automobiles. Even when they can do nothing, they listen with sympathy.

Such behavior reminds me of nothing I ever saw in my own trips to China, and I can only assume that a flattering portrayal of Communist officials—with the exception of Chief Wang—was a price that director Zhang, with his two preceding films banned, thought it wise to pay. There has been a report, in fact, that with the appearance of The Story of Qiu-Ju, Zhang’s earlier Ju Dou and Raise the Red Lantern have been cleared for general release in China.

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At the end of The Story of Qiu-Ju, Chief Wang performs what might be seen as an act of contrition. Qiu-Ju goes into labor and Chief Wang heroically gets her to the hospital on time; at the baby’s birthday party, he and Qiu-Ju seem to have made their peace. But then one of life’s ironies kicks in. An X-ray reveals that in addition to kicking Qiu-Ju’s husband in the testicles, Chief Wang has also cracked one of the man’s ribs. Now, why cracking a rib should be considered a graver offense than kicking him in the testicles escapes me, but Chief Wang is solemnly sentenced to three weeks in prison.

The film ends with a freeze frame of Qiu-Ju’s face. She is grief-stricken. For she is one of the world’s holy simpletons. She had not wanted vengeance. She only wanted respect.

Despite its concession to the authorities, The Story of Qiu-Ju is a remarkable film. Its theme is universal. In all societies, but particularly in those emerging from severe political repression, individuals crave respect. And in political systems pretending to omniscience and ordering their every action, it is respect that has been denied them.

In the Fifth Generation’s movies emerging from mainland China, and in particular in a profound, eloquent film like The Story of Qiu-Ju, we are about as far—artistically and morally—from the world of The Joy Luck Club as it is possible to get.

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