THE Best Film
The Yellow Earth shows peasants struggling to survive
the hardships of the land.
most people have heard of China's celebrated "Fifth Generation"
of directors. Film-makers like Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige have
enthralled cinemagoers with works like Red Sorghum and Farewell,
My Concubine. As with other trailblazers, the Fifth Generation
needed a breakthrough movie to bring them to the attention of
viewers at home and abroad. That film was The Yellow Earth,
filmed in 1984.
Directed by Chen Kaige and photographed by Zhang Yimou, The Yellow
Earth was a sensation at the Hong Kong Film Festival in 1985.
Word quickly spread that something new was happening. In the following
years Chinese films dominated international festivals. Directors
like Chen and Zhang established themselves at the forefront of
world cinema, and Chinese works superseded Japanese ones as the
most popular movies from Asia.
Since 1949, Chinese cinema has been part of the state propaganda
machine, and although some great films had been made, they were
generally didactic. The Yellow Earth was pleasingly ambiguous,
and although it did not directly criticize the Communist Party,
it did point to its failure to achieve anything in the face of
the many problems posed by China's vast land mass. Its aesthetics
were also radically new and saw Chinese film-makers breaking away
from many cinematic conventions of the past.
The Yellow Earth, which is set in 1939, centers on the relationship
between Gu Qing, a member of the Eighth Route Army, and a peasant
family. Gu comes to the village to compile a collection of folk
songs, and he meets the young Cuiqiao and her family. She is due
to enter into an arranged marriage, which terrifies her. She is
inspired by Gu's stories of girls fighting in the army, and asks
him whether she can follow him back to Yanan. While Cuiqiao waits
for Gu Qing's return from Yanan with official approval, she is
married. She decides to try to join an army unit that is camping
on the other side of the Yellow River and drowns as she tries
to row herself across.
All this is played out against the land that gives the film its
title. The Yellow Earth directly addresses the triangular relationship
between the land, the party and the peasants, a relationship which
underlies Maoist revolutionary thought. The peasants in The Yellow
Earth struggle hard to survive against the hardships of the land,
as they have done throughout history. Communism was meant to improve
the lives of these peasants, and Cuiqiao's last words before drowning
are: "Here to save the people are the Communists." Taken literally,
this line is politically correct, as it implies things will get
better in the future. But in the context of the movie as a whole,
it is a statement of misplaced faith which highlights how ineffective
any political party can be against the great and unpredictable
power of the yellow land.
By Richard James Havis
to Asiaweek at email@example.com