History Happens

This appeared in the Chicago Reader (September 16, 1994). — J.R.



Directed by Tian Zhuangzhuang

Written by Xiao Mao

With Zhang Wenyao, Chen Xiaoman, Lu Liping, Pu Quanxin, Li Xuejian, Guo Baochang, Zhong Ping, and Chu Quanzhong.

Covering 15 years of modern Chinese history, from 1953 to 1968, The Blue Kite is powerful less for what it says about continuity in history than for what it implies about history disrupting people’s lives. The two things that matter most to Tietou, the fictional hero, apart from his mother, are the courtyard just off the Dry Well Lane apartment where his parents move in the opening scene and the title toy — actually a series of toys — he’s given to play with by his father. Each blue kite we see over the course of the film winds up getting stuck in one of the courtyard’s trees and needs to be replaced; more or less the same thing happens with the Tietou’s father (eventually supplanted by two stepfathers) and Tietou’s sense of home, not to mention his sense of identity. All that he retains, and only after a struggle, is a certain sense of morality bequeathed by his mother and a certain sense of place bequeathed by the courtyard.

Partly autobiographical and partly drawn from what he has described as “about two full cartons” of interviews and research, Tian Zhuangzhuang’s eighth theatrical feature, playing this week only at the Music Box, might be viewed as this masterful director’s eighth blue kite, flying like many of the others out of his hands. Tian was born in 1952 into a prominent film family in mainland China, his mother, once a major star, now heads the Beijing Children’s Film Studio, and his father, now deceased, was at different times an actor and a high-ranking official in the ministry of culture’s Film Bureau. Tian initially avoided following in their footsteps by training as a still photographer while he served in the army during the Cultural Revolution; he switched to studying cinematography at the Beijing Agricultural Film Studio only after he returned to civilian life in 1975. As a child he often went to censorship-board screenings with his father, but when he was 12 he sat too close to the screen while watching a Soviet epic and wound up vomiting. After that he steered clear of movies until he was in his 20s. Maybe he had intimations of trouble to come.

When the Beijing Film Academy reopened after the Cultural Revolution in 1978, Tian was admitted to the directors’ class, becoming a member of the famous “Fifth Generation,” which also included Chen Kaige (Farewell My Concubine), Huang Jianxin (The Black Cannon Incident), Li Shaohong (Family Portrait), Zhang Junzhao (The One and Eight), and Zhang Yimou (Raise the Red Lantern). Tian first attracted notice with a 1980 film called Our Corner, about a young girl and a group of handicapped men, and first attracted notoriety — as well as some international exposure — five years later with two stylistically bold features dealing with oppressed minority cultures within China, On the Hunting Ground (Mongolians) and The Horse Thief (Tibetans), both of which got only limited play within China despite their strong impact in other countries. Then came The Traveling Players (1987), a film about actors that had limited screenings outside China (where it had been cut substantially by censors), followed by two relatively commercial and impersonal assignments, Rock Kids (1988), about Chinese break dancing, and Li Lianying, the Imperial Eunuch (1991), which is available in this country on laser disc and has received some favorable notices. Tian also made a feature in 1990 about illegal immigrants, Illegal Lives, that has never been released.

The Blue Kite encountered major problems with Chinese censors before it was even finished. A coproduction of the Beijing Film Studio and Hong Kong’s Longwick, it began shooting in late 1991 after the first draft of the script — written by Xiao Mao in close consultation with Tian — had been rejected by the Beijing studio and duly revised. Principal photography was completed in three months (the whole film was shot in Beijing), but then mainland film officials previewed the rough cut and ordered all work halted. The film was not allowed to be shipped to Japan, where postproduction had been scheduled, and local labs were directed not to process the film. Unlike the censoring agencies in most other countries, Chinese government officials are not required or even expected to give reasons for their decisions, though word circulated that the preview cut wasn’t the same as the approved script.

After remaining in limbo for almost a year, the film was saved when world rights were purchased by Fortissimo Film Sales, based in the Netherlands, and postproduction was completed by following the director’s script and detailed notes. How the rough cut actually made it out of mainland China has not, to my knowledge, been reported, though apparently subterfuge was involved. Tian has merely said, “Of all the films I have made, this is the one into which I have most put my heart. Its completion is due to many friends in the film world.”

Since the film’s completion last April the mainland government has launched a major crackdown on filmmaking. As a consequence Tian and half a dozen other mainland directors — most of them “Sixth Generation” independents like Zhang Yuan (Mama, Beijing Bastards) and Wang Xiaoshuai (The Days) — are blocked from making any future films, with directives sent to all of the country’s official studios (of which there are 16), processing labs, and equipment-rental services forbidding any cooperation with the filmmakers. So whether The Blue Kite represents “a turning point in Chinese cinema [or] a brilliant anomaly,” as Phillip Lopate puts it in the July-August issue of Film Comment, is still far from clear.

Having seen only one of Tian’s previous features, the startling and beautiful The Horse Thief, I can’t speak about his work as a coherent auteurist whole, but probably no one else can either. With few exceptions — such as the unprecedented career of Zhang Yimou, who has had his own troubles with government censorship — mainland Chinese cinema can’t be said to permit much auterist consistency. If there are thematic continuities between The Horse Thief and The Blue Kite, they mainly have to do with parenting and the fate of rebellious, cantankerous individuals in highly regimented communities. Stylistic continuities are more difficult to find, but there are a few having to do with a pronounced sense of place.

More than any other mainland Chinese director I’m familiar with, Tian seems schooled not only in the works of other Asian masters, but also in the modernist cinema of the West. In his interview with Lopate he expresses particular enthusiasm for Martin Scorsese and Michelangelo Antonioni as well as for Ermanno Olmi’s The Tree of Wooden Clogs, Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story, Edward Yang’s A Brighter Summer Day (which also shows Antonioni’s influence), and the early films of Hou Hsiao-hsien.

Perhaps the most relevant of these interests to The Blue Kite is the 1978 The Tree of Wooden Clogs (which Tian has seen three times), particularly if one thinks of the multiple uses of courtyards in both films — places the characters repeatedly pass through and relate to in countless ways and that evolve over time so that they ultimately take on some of the properties of three-dimensional characters. Ozu, Antonioni, and Yang all have the capacity to give locations a mysterious aura of lingering human presence (Yang bestows this quality on objects as well), but Olmi’s film — which deals with a peasant community in northern Italy over the stretch of a year just before the turn of the century — gives the central location an even more crucial role, particularly in relation to the passage of time.

One reason the courtyard in The Blue Kite assumes the importance it does is the sense of continuity it imparts to a life otherwise ruled by absurd and irrational discontinuities dictated by social change and upheaval, commonly characterized as “history” or “politics.” Practically the first thing we learn from the offscreen grown-up narrator recounting his family’s past is that his parents’ wedding had to be postponed for ten days due to the death of Stalin, though most people in the community, whom we see most often in the courtyard, didn’t know who Stalin was. And thanks to Stalin’s death the birth of Tietou was also delayed.

As we become acquainted with the couple’s relatives and neighbors — especially the landlady, the wife’s mother and three siblings, and the husband’s colleagues at the library where he works — we learn that politics play an important role in all their lives, though this role often proves to be treacherous. When the landlady makes the state a joint owner of her courtyard she receives praise for her social awareness but discovers that her generosity still counts for less than her former wealth, which has branded her an unreconstructed bourgeois. One of the husband’s colleagues criticizes the bureaucracy at a library meeting, mentioning the absent husband’s name in a gesture of assumed solidarity; the Maoist government later reverses its free-speech policy, and the husband is implicated as a “rightist.” After the husband makes the mistake of leaving a meeting where this issue is being discussed to go to the bathroom, he’s shipped off to a labor camp for reeducation, and because of a freak accident at the camp he never comes back.

These are only two examples of a diabolical process of reversal that repeatedly makes a mockery of all the characters’ lives, beliefs, and politics, a process they’re incapable of combating. Tietou grows up recalcitrant and rebellious, yet as the film proceeds through its three parts — labeled “Dad,” “Uncle,” and “Stepfather” after the three husbands — Tietou’s mother, a grammar school teacher, manages to maintain a firm sense of morality, whether this entails forgiving her first husband’s unwitting betrayer or slapping Tietou after his antisocial tendencies merge with the vindictive cruelties of the Cultural Revolution in the humiliation of another teacher. (I won’t even attempt to outline more of the richly elaborated plot and characters, which Tian does a masterful job of unraveling over 138 minutes.)

Part of Tian’s sublime achievement is an interweaving of the mordant tragicomedy of contemporary Chinese history with the morality and hopeful endurance of the mother (beautifully played by Lu Liping) without reducing either to the status of cliche, formula, or platitude. The texture of everyday life is continually evoked, and in many respects Tian and his screenwriter are more interested in conveying what this life feels like than in proposing what it means. From the vantage point of Tietou — who oscillates believably between hero and monster — neither the mother nor the courtyard can be counted on as a constant. His mother leaves him for one stretch to do volunteer work in the country, and he and his mother are forced to leave home after his first stepfather dies. Yet unruly history and politics, whatever their relevance to the texture of his life, are constant intrusions. It is in the uneasy confluence of these three elements — family (mother), local community (courtyard), and history (politics) — that the everyday life of China in the 50s and 60s takes shape.

Like the other greatest Asian films of recent years — Hou’s The Puppet Master, Akira Kurosawa’s Rhapsody in August, Stanley Kwan’s Actress, Yang’s A Brighter Summer Day, Zhang’s Raise the Red Lantern, and a few other shining candidates — The Blue Kite derives most of its richness from a capacity to rethink history and its relation to individual lives, seeing it as if for the very first time. What emerges is a genuine sense of discovery and renewal, something the tired West seems to have left behind in its insatiable hunger for immediate gratification (which invariably entails stylistic pastiche instead of genuine memory, postmodernist punch instead of achieved vision or reverie). The pacing of these films may be slower, the camera’s vantage point more detached, the techniques apparently simpler, and the emotional rewards more delayed, yet their lucid, unflinching looks into this century’s past ultimately lead to infinite depths. Look long enough at these movies and the world looks back at you.

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