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 > summer special 2000
For the year 2000

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25 Years  Intro |  Democrat |  Film |  Architecture | Book  25 Years

THE Best Film

Asiaweek Pictures.
The Yellow Earth shows peasants struggling to survive the hardships of the land.

Nowadays, 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 Directors like Chen and Zhang established themselves at the forefront of world cinema, and Chinese works superseded Japanese ones as the most popular movies from Asia.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

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