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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
But the Melody Lingers On
by Donald Levit

In 2000, Jia Zhang-ke’s Platform built its fiction about the Peasant Culture Group’s performing abysmal Party drama in Shanxi province hamlets, while two years later Dai Sijie centered Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress around a remote re-education village and romanticized retellings of approved, equally awful Communist Bloc movies. Financed outside and touching aspects of the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, both ran into trouble with Chinese authorities. Now writer-director Yan-Ting Yuen’s Dutch-backed Yang Ban Xi: The Eight Model Works brings back another representational aspect of that era -- the propaganda opera -- but with a happier Chinese link, for in their pristine state these eight (of some thirteen) have recaptured their homeland public, the oldsters who recall the works from their youth, and a rising generation appreciative of the simple, simplistic, campy joy of the productions.

In what is her first full-length feature, Amsterdam-educated Yuen knowingly applies a patina, not only of acceptance, but of humor and irony, to what is often and easily viewed with a dour expression. Her documentary is, in fact, hybrid: direct or living cinema, the American brand of cinema verité; interviews informally done around slices of white bread, a restaurant meal, or a rehearsal floor; a bare minimum of maybe actuality footage; Technicolor and Scope period operas like “The Red Women’s Detachment,” “[Taking] Tiger Mountain [by Strategy],” and “The White-Haired Girl”; contemporary hip Chinese teens improbably West Side Story-ishly dancing in streets or park pagodas; and Madame Mao, Jiang Qing, supreme patroness from 1960 of these “educational” vehicles and here fictionalized from the book The White-Boned Demon and irregularly serving as sometimes-reliable-but-often-not voice-over analyst.

Today’s predominantly young ticket-buying public will probably not go anywhere near something like this, but there’s a decided two-pronged hook for moviegoers mature enough to have escaped the desensitizing of media onslaught.

There is, first, the fate of the stars of these agitprop shows. Celebrities during the period such spectaculars were the sanctioned form of performance and radio-television entertainment, they fell as abruptly and nearly as hard as Chairman Mao’s unrepentant former actress widow (who was denounced with the Gang of Four, sentenced initially to death, and lived under house arrest until her suicide in 1991). Degraded and deprived of fame, livelihood and artistic outlet, they found themselves reduced to menial employment as seamstresses or cleaners in the very theaters of the salad days.

Interspersed with interviews with former fans now grown to adulthood, these once and future performers are difficult to keep straight, but nothing is lost by that: Zhang Nanyun never again found a stage but did find happiness that has lasted with her also Yang Ban Xi-singer husband Tong Xiangling; among the genre’s most popular figures as a teenage dancer, Xue Qinghua is today fifty-seven and nervous about her eroded skills before a revival but winds up warmly applauded and showered with bouquets.

Highlights are the clips from the movies shortened down from the operas and surprisingly easy on the eyes. Then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger found the four-hour-plus live versions “an art form of truly stupefying boredom, [where] the girl fell in love with a tractor.” Accompanying the kitsch of Mao’s stage sun repeatedly rising “like the Communist Party” over cardboard mountains and military uniformed dancers with pistols as props -- conceptual pop artist Xu Yi Hui recalls that their shorts revealed the only sexy legs visible in China -- there is exuberance and charm not so very different from our heyday of stage and film musicals. More balletic than Broadway’s heavier athletic leaps, and less subtle than America’s stage touting of national values, the filmed operas show that “no expense was spared” and, their WhateverScope fringed bleeding looking like cheap color magazine ads, oddly recall musical movie experience this side of the Pacific, too.

There were, of course, the tricks, the low camera angles and mouths stuffed with apples to fatten ballerinas into sturdy peasant women, to help “art serve the political goals of the moment.” Still in shape herself, Xue notes that real peasants were thin but that the illusionist shows what people want to believe. Annie Oakley as well carried a stage gun, just as in these “fairy-tale[s] like a Hollywood musical. Sometimes you could learn from those Westerners.” 

(Released by Shadow Distribution; not rated by MPAA.)

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