The People's Director

The old new China of Xie Jin (1923-2008)
by Leo Goldsmith  posted December 11, 2008
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Seek out the films of veteran Chinese filmmaker Xie Jin on home video in the United States and you won’t find much: a public library copy of 1964’s Two Stage Sisters; a VCD or two, imported from Hong Kong, in a Chinatown video store; a couple of slightly dubious DVD-Rs on Amazon, distributed by a company called Guangzhou Beauty Culture Communication Co. When Xie died on October 18, a month shy of his 85th birthday, the Associated Press ran an obituary, as did several newspapers in Britain (where Xie’s 1997 film, The Opium War, released to coincide with the return of Hong Kong to China, raised a few hackles). But otherwise the loss of the most consistently prolific and arguably the most revered filmmaker in China passed largely without comment in the English-speaking world.

And yet Xie was no stranger to the West. He was the only Chinese director to be made a member of both the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the Directors Guild of America, and he even shot part of his 1988 film The Last Aristocrats in New York. In China, where he had been making immensely popular films since the dawn of the People’s Republic, he was a household name. Mainly known for his “women’s pictures,” Xie won the Golden Rooster, the country’s highest film honor, three times. Xinhua, China’s official press agency, reported 10,000 mourners at Xie’s funeral in Shanghai, and news outlets throughout East Asia responded with an outpouring of eulogies.

Until quite recently, Western studies of the history of cinema in Mainland China have been largely confined to two periods: the Golden Age of Shanghai filmmaking in the 1930s and 1940s (the work of the so-called Second Generation), and those films made since about 1980, comprising the work of the Fifth Generation (Zhang Yimou, Tian Zhuangzhuang, Chen Kaige) and Sixth Generation (Jia Zhangke, Li Yang, Wang Xiaoshuai). The films made in between—from the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 until the late 1970s—have received little attention for several reasons, not the least of which are the country’s partial isolation, the state’s strict control of film production during the period, and a succession of censorial crackdowns and ideological “corrections” during the first 30 years of the PRC (of which the Cultural Revolution [1966-1976] was the most violent and extreme). This history seems to have left much of the West with the assumption that Mao-era Chinese cinema, with its politically circumscribed content and propagandistic impetus, is less worthy of scrutiny. Thus, the work of those very few Third Generation filmmakers who remained active at the time—of which Xie Jin is by far the most prominent—is little known in the West, even though it was virtually the only cinema known to millions of Chinese filmgoers for many years.

The films of Xie Jin are themselves bound up in this tumultuous period of Chinese history, an epoch of ideology and nationalism, censorship and recrimination, rehabilitation and globalization. As his films were all made under the aegis of state-controlled film studios and released with the imprimatur of government censors, his career offers something like a lesson in Maoist historiography—didactic, contradictory, and mercurial. During this period—from the founding of the People’s Republic of China  in 1949, to the brutal oppression of the Cultural Revolution, to the social and economic reforms of Deng Xiaoping’s regime and beyond—Xie’s accomplished melodramas alternately extolled, endured, and criticized the political and economic vicissitudes of his country.

Born in the Zhejiang countryside on November 21, 1923, Xie was raised from the age of eight in Shanghai, a crucible of art, politics, commerce, and ideas that would profoundly shape his early life. The director noted the influence of the imported Hollywood films that flooded the exhibition market as well as the classic domestic productions of the period, like Street Angel and Crossroads, to which his cinephile mother would take him. But just as important was the city’s theatrical tradition, which Xie studied at the drama academies of Sichuan and Nanjing, and later lovingly documented in the performance sequences in Two Stage Sisters. Japan’s partial occupation of China from 1931 through the end of the Second World War deeply affected Xie, as it did many of his generation. He was in his mid-teens when Japan took control of Shanghai in 1937, and the experience would stoke a lifelong patriotism that remained even under oppressive communist programs. Whether from a sense of nationalism or professional opportunity, Xie lingered in China after the war (rather than use his affluent family’s money to travel abroad), leaving his career on the stage for a job as assistant director in the Shanghai film industry in 1948, on the eve of the liberation of Shanghai from the KMT.

During the transition to socialism, films were highly regulated, serving as a primary propaganda tool through which the Party could remind the people of the need for liberation and revolution. While pre-revolutionary moviegoing was largely an urban affair, the state set up mobile projection teams—more than 10,000 by 1958—to screen films for rural peasants. Film production was also decentralized, as Mao’s government dismantled Shanghai studios and opened regional production facilities. And film criticism too was party-controlled, as state-run film magazines were founded to promote ideologically sound films and denounce those deemed to be “poisonous weeds” (ducao). Films were now required to tell stories about “the people”—peasants and workers, not urban artists and intellectuals—and as a result, the earliest films from the People’s Republic were uniform (and, by all accounts, rather staid). Xie cut his teeth in this environment, working as an assistant until directing his first feature, The Denunciation (or Accusation), in 1951.

Mao’s Hundred Flowers movement—launched in May 1956 to “let one hundred flowers bloom, and let one hundred schools contend,” invoking an ancient Chinese adage—offered a brief window of intellectual freedom for artists and critics, even as it cunningly flushed out those overly critical intellectuals who would later be deemed “rightists.” Though it soon devolved into the Anti-Rightist campaigns of the late 1950s and early 1960s, the movement nonetheless opened the door for Xie’s first major success, the 1957 sports dramedy Woman Basketball Player No. 5. The film is notable for celebrating “the glory of sport” rather than that of labor, and downright remarkable for its resemblance to dozens of Hollywood sports films. Fifty years later it remains entertaining and fast-paced, following a veteran professional basketball player named Tian Zhenhua as he trains a young women’s team in Shanghai. As its title suggests, the film is about both individuation and interchangeability—individual characters and their place within the numerical system of a team—and Xie blends the personal and the political into a resonant melodrama. Tian soon finds that one of the girls on his team is the daughter of Lin Jie, a lost love from whom Tian was separated in the “old China.” With their country’s own new beginning, the “beginning of a new life together” is made possible for the lovers as well. Heavy-handed but effective, this symbolic “new dawn” is emphasized in the film’s contrasts between a grim, corrupt, and rainy pre-revolutionary past and a colorful, ever-sunny present. The film’s ideal of the “new China,” with its bright institutional interiors, fetish for the products of technology and engineering, and its vociferous debates about the ideological value of athletics, betrays a strong Soviet influence, as do the film’s quick montage and bouncing musical score.

Perhaps most significantly, Woman Basketball Player No. 5 was Xie’s first major film about the suffering of women in the old China and their emancipation in the PRC, a subject that virtually all of his most enduring films emphasize—or even exploit. Though Xie is occasionally characterized as “the Chinese Douglas Sirk” in the West, his concern for women is motivated as much by politics as by sympathy—in his early films Xie frequently charts the progression of female characters from abused slaves or battered wives to desexualized daughters of the revolution. In Woman Basketball Player No. 5, even as romantic loss and reunion are yoked to the master narrative of PRC history, the youthful female athletes are carefully de-gendered, their exacting coach explicitly treating them the same as male athletes. Xie’s 1958 film Huang Baomei, one of a new genre of pseudo-documentaries about the “real” lives of ordinary laborers, eulogizes its female title character, played by a real worker named Huang Baomei, as an ideal for modern Chinese textile factory workers generally. (Jia Zhangke’s 24 City, his 2008 pseudo-documentary about the former employees of the Chengdu munitions plant, seems to riff on this Great Leap Forward-era docudrama genre.) The Red Detachment of Women (1961), Xie’s next feature, continues this project of gender-equality-as-desexualization in the form of a quasi-feminist action movie, in which a ragtag, all-female unit of the Red Army fights corrupt Nationalists on Hainan Island in the late 1940s.

Timed to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the New China, The Red Detachment of Women was something like a PRC blockbuster upon its release, its large-scale action set pieces, elaborate cinematography, and robust revolutionary message eventually inspiring a host of remakes, from ballet to opera to comic book. (Some years later, when artistic production of all kinds was held in the tight grip of the Cultural Revolution, The Red Detachment of Women was reserved as one of only eight “model plays” that Jiang Qing, Mao’s wife, deemed ideologically and aesthetically acceptable.) Even more than Xie’s previous film, The Red Detachment of Women displays an assured craftsmanship that’s evocative of contemporary Soviet and Hollywood productions: dramatic cutting, compositions, and camera movement, and elaborate and highly expressionistic mise-en-scène and lighting. To be sure, the film’s message is clear and its characterizations uncomplicated: Nan Pa-tien is the irredeemably evil landlord, gray-faced and mustachioed; Wu Chunhua is the resilient slave girl who, even as her master whips her, defiantly vows to run away again to become a woman soldier. With the help of a good-looking Party representative named Comrade Hung, Wu does just that, training with the women’s detachment, infiltrating Nan Pa-tien’s stronghold, and coolly murdering enemy soldiers with her bare hands.

In spite of its didacticism, evident in its ardent introductory voiceover and persistent female chorus (“March on! March on!/ Our responsibility is heavy, and our hatred is deep./ The Party will lead us to our freedom!”), it’s hard not to find the film rousing. In many ways, it’s the ideal PRC product, analogous to any number of bombastic WWII-era films in the West like They Were Expendable, Foreign Correspondent, or In Which We Serve. The difference, of course, is the emphasis on the role of women in the revolution, a device that wins both the audience’s sympathies and its nationalist fervor (“The Party calls on you women who suffered bitterly to take up arms and open fire on the old society!”) But as in the prior film, where the paternal Tian coaches young women to achieve equal, desexualized places within the new society, the Party in The Red Detachment of Women is distinctly fatherly, and its representative, Comrade Hung, is the admirable male whom the female revolutionaries look up to. (“You open my eyes!” Wu tells Hung later in the film, after a lesson in the value of camaraderie over individual valor.) Of course, because romantic relationships were forbidden under the Red Army’s code of conduct, government censors demanded that the love story be toned down, but there remains an obvious tension in the film’s depiction of Comrade Hung’s dual role as both father figure and romantic lead.

After the success of The Red Detachment of Women, Xie embarked on a more ambitious project, 1964’s Two Stage Sisters. The film is somewhat unusual for being based on an original screenplay (rather than a previously sanctioned literary or dramatic work), but in its deft metaphorical synthesis of theater and history, it pointedly incorporates several classic dramas from the Old and New China. Beginning in 1935, in Zhejiang province, where Xie was born, the film follows two young actresses: Yuehong, the daughter of the leader of a traveling opera troupe, and Chunhua, an escaped child bride who seeks refuge in the company. After the death of Yuehong’s father, and years of enduring hardship and humiliation touring rural China, the two actresses flee starvation, exploitation, and prostitution for the theater world of Japanese-occupied Shanghai. Here, their fortunes diverge, with Yuehong falling under the sway and adulation of the Nationalist theater manager Tang (whom she soon marries) and Chunhua gaining inspiration and empowerment from a leftist female drama critic and the literary works of the late Lu Xun. Soon, Chunhua defies Tang by performing an opera based on Lu’s social-realist novella New Year’s Sacrifice (in which Chunhua appears as an elderly peasant widow), an effort to found a politically and socially committed theater in Shanghai. Paralleling the political struggles between Nationalists and Communists in the years before the revolution, this conflict between Tang and Chunhua (with Yuehong in the middle) ends when Tang’s hired attack on Chunhua fails, and the ensuing trial forces Tang out of the city. Devastated and ashamed of her own role in the attack, Yuehong flees into hiding in the Zhejiang countryside while Shanghai is liberated. Later, Chunhua, who is touring the country with a performance of the arch-communist play The White-Haired Girl, finds Yuehong in Zhejiang and reconciles with her.

Widely recognized as Xie’s masterpiece, Two Stage Sisters is not only one of the great films about the theater, extending the familiar metaphor of the world as stage, it’s also a complex synthesis of aesthetic and political ideas. In many ways, it’s a culmination of all that Xie had learned in drama, cinema, and politics, using a very Hollywood form of cinematic melodrama to tell the story of the New China through changes in its theatrical forms—from escapist romances about scholars and maidens to socially conscious revolutionary drama about the plight of the peasantry. Each theatrical production in the film brings Chunhua (and the audience) closer to the ideal drama, as delineated by Mao himself. At the end of the film, as the two stage sisters reminisce aboard a boat speeding toward the horizon, Chunhua suggests to Yuehong that they “remold [them]selves in earnest and sing a lifetime of revolutionary operas.”

But sadly, this extraordinary film, which seems so succinctly to encapsulate the artistic and ideological spirit of the New China, came too late. Though Premier Zhou Enlai strongly supported it, Jiang Qing (whose Gang of Four was already gaining prominence) denounced the film for the supposed implication of class reconciliation in the conclusion. (The resemblance of the actresses’ story to Madame Mao’s own life cannot have helped—as Lan Ping, she was a star on the Shanghai stage in the 1930s, playing Nora in a Chinese production of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, before joining the revolution and marrying Mao.) Already slightly out of favor for his 1962 satirical comedy about bureaucrats, Big Li, Old Li, and Little Li, Xie was strongly censured for Two Stage Sisters, paraded around to rallies and factories to be publicly humiliated. In spite of this experience, he fared better than many of his contemporaries during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution—millions were tortured, displaced, persecuted to death, or driven to suicide. Among these were Xie’s own parents, who killed themselves during these brutal years: his father by sleeping pills, his mother by throwing herself from a building.

From 1967 to 1969, film production in China was completely suspended, gradually resuming with the production of only nine films between 1970 and 1973. In these later years, Xie was again allowed to work in the film industry, co-directing film versions of the eight “model plays” under the rigorous supervision of Madame Mao herself who, Xie later reported, would order whole films to be reshot multiple times. With the death of Mao and the subsequent arrest of the Gang of Four in 1976, Xie’s career as a reasonably autonomous director resumed, however tentatively, with two films about children, 1977’s Youth and 1979’s Oh Cradle. (The former introduced Joan Chen to Chinese cinema, though there is some disagreement over whether it was Xie or Jiang Qing herself who discovered the young actress.) But it was the series of films that Xie made from the late 1970s to the mid-1980s that would mark his official return to cinema—and mitigate any compunction for his somewhat compliant role during the preceding decade. Beginning with The Legend of Tianyun Mountain in 1980, Xie directed several films inspired by the so-called “wound” or “scar literature” of the time, a literary genre that sought to exorcize the demons of the Cultural Revolution. As it turned out, Xie Jin’s particular model of melodrama proved an apt means of dealing with this trauma: oppression and suffering, particularly of women, in brutal social and political environments had long been Xie’s milieu, only here the enemies would be the ultra-leftists and the Gang of Four.

The Legend of Tianyun Mountain begins in the winter of 1978 and follows the efforts of Song Wei, an official in a regional Organization Department, to address appeals for “rehabilitation” for those pegged as “counter-revolutionary” during the Anti-Rightist campaigns and the Cultural Revolution. Old wounds are reopened when Song’s young friend Yuzhen, the optimistic twentysomething daughter of a veteran revolutionary, recounts the story of a “strange man” she has met on Tianyun Mountain. He turns out to be Luo Qun, Song’s former lover, whom she was pressured to denounce as a rightist some 20 years earlier. Since that time he has lived in abject poverty but remained true to his principles and his humanity, while Song went on to marry the devious and abusive Party official who put her up to denouncing Luo Qun in the first place.

Though made in 1980, The Legend of Tianyun Mountain has the look and feel of a much older film, not only in its black-and-white moralism, but also in its expressive use of flashbacks and point-of-view shots. Song Wei’s reminiscence of the good old days of 1957 are figured as a kind of lost spring, verdant and naive, while the present is a snowbound winter of the characters’ discontent (prompting Yuzhen’s elegant admonition, “Song Wei, stop living like a fish in a freezer!”). The scene in which Song wrestles with her conscience over the denunciation of her lover depicts an almost Hitchcockian hysteria: the Party official’s voice booms in Song’s head (“You must stand firm!”), the camera careens wildly in different directions, and the image of an unbridled horse—galloping out of control like the forces of ideological fervor—is superimposed over Song’s face as she faints.

In the next few years, with consistent commercial and critical success, Xie Jin continued his melodramatic explorations of national traumas with films like The Herdsman and Wreaths at the Foot of the Mountain (the latter being one of the only state-sanctioned films about the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese border war). His widely acclaimed 1986 film, Hibiscus Town, dealt explicitly with the Cultural Revolution itself, adapting Gu Hua’s award-winning novel about a female restaurant owner who is stripped of her business and forced to work as a street sweeper. As with the previous few films, and unlike his pre-Cultural Revolution films, Hibiscus Town is less about vengeance than vindication: the protagonists of these films are deeply wronged and lose years of their lives to oppressive government programs, but they are critical of specific misguided policies and officials, not of China as a whole. The message of all of these films can be found in Hibiscus Town’s dictum, “Survive by any means, as cattle and horses do.”

While Hibiscus Town tones down some of the histrionics of Xie’s style, reinvigorating it with a stronger sense of realism, the form that critic Zhu Dake derisively called “Xie Jin’s model” was by then widely recognized as the basic form of mid-1980s popular Chinese cinema. Indeed, with the arrival of the Fifth Generation filmmakers (and a new generation of critics and cinephiles with them), Xie’s films drew some criticism. In contrast to the films of the new generation, they were simply too manipulative, too structurally formulaic, perhaps a bit too reverent of a New China that had, for the new generation, grown old. But while films like Zhang Junzhao’s One and Eight and Chen Kaige’s Yellow Earth found audiences abroad, Xie’s films continued to win awards and succeed commercially at home. In the 20 years since Hibiscus Town, he worked on five television miniseries and made another half-dozen films. Some of these were distributed internationally—like 1990’s Bell of Purity Temple and his 1997 epic, The Opium War, the most expensive mainland Chinese film ever made until Zhang’s Hero in 2002—but most were domestic releases, like Woman Soccer Player #9, a 2001 film that has little to do with its namesake. Given the opportunity to reach a global audience, Xie remained faithful to the Chinese market, eschewing the sexier kinds of Chinese films (art-house festival favorites and martial-arts films) that have succeeded abroad, and this too helps to explain why Xie is a less recognizable figure in the West than those who followed him. But as is so often the case, the work of those Fifth and Sixth Generation filmmakers so widely praised today owes a great deal to Xie’s films, which offer a unique reflection of the complex and often tragic history of modern China.


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Courtesy China Film Archive
The Red Detachment of Women
Photo Gallery: The People's Director


Xie Jin  |  Chinese cinema  |  Retrospective  |  melodrama  |  Hollywood  |  gender equality  |  Theater  |  Cold War  |  Mao Zedong  |  patriotism  |  sexuality


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Leo Goldsmith co-edits the film section of The Brooklyn Rail and is a PhD candidate in the Department of Cinema Studies at New York University. He contributes regularly to Not Coming to a Theater Near You and Reverse Shot.

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