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CINEMA: A Masterwork Suppressed

3 minute read
Richard Corliss

WHEN BAD THINGS HAPPEN TO good people: this is a dominant theme of literature and drama through the ages, from the Book of Job to Dostoyevsky novels to most soap operas and TV movies. It is also the story line of the Chinese film The Blue Kite — and the story behind the suppression of this bold, masterly work.

Tian Zhuangzhuang’s film opens in 1953, with the marriage of lovely Chen Shujuan (Lu Liping), a schoolteacher, and gentle Lin Shaolong (Pu Quanxin), a librarian. The two believe they have much to celebrate: their warm love, to be sure, but also the dawn of a true People’s Republic. Their political ardor can’t last; what begins in naive hope is crushed against the great wall of Maoist reality.

The couple have a son, Tietou (played by three children in the 15-year course of the narrative), and all seems well. But shortly thereafter, the family begins its run of exemplary bad luck — everything rotten that could happen to anyone in the plague years of Maoist China seems to happen to them.

During the rectification movement of 1957, when citizens were urged to “let a hundred schools of thought contend,” a colleague of Shaolong’s innocently implicates him in criticism of their work conditions, and when the official policy reverts back to thought control, Shaolong is banished to a labor camp, later to be killed by a falling tree. Tietou’s uncle is going blind, and Uncle’s girlfriend, star of an army theater troupe, is sent to jail because she refuses an order to have sex with political leaders. Shujuan’s second husband (Li Xuejian) dies from a liver ailment aggravated by the rampant malnutrition of the early ’60s. And during the spiteful frenzy of the Cultural Revolution, Shujuan’s third husband (Guo Baochang) is humiliated and beaten by the righteous Red Guard. What is worse than young American rebels without a cause? Young Chinese cadres with one.

Cataloged like this, the plot may sound like little more than anti-agitprop. And indeed The Blue Kite is by far the most excoriating depiction in Chinese film of Mao’s ravages. But at its heart it is about domestic dreams, about a hope for better days that flies above the characters as brightly and vulnerably as Tietou’s favorite blue kite. The rhythms of this family — the meals and arguments, the worries about money and the sweet moments when a put- upon mom finds bliss playing with her bright child — are handsomely observed and beautifully played. In Lu, Tian found one of those perfect faces from which emotion rises spontaneously, acutely and eloquently.

But to Chinese authorities, The Blue Kite was nothing more than an incendiary insult. They approved the script but when Tian diverged from it, refused to let him edit his film; it languished for a year and was completed abroad by others working from the director’s screenplay and notes. The film was banned in China, and last month Tian and six other prominent directors were forbidden to make films in their homeland.

So Tian must feel kinship with the beleaguered brood in The Blue Kite. It is now the challenge of the world film community to see that he is not silenced because he told the truth.

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