Telecommuniculturey

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Wednesday, June 07, 2006

The Chairman and his Madame Are Most Synchronicitous

So in addition to being a giant fangirl of Kathleen Kim as Madame Mao in Nixon in China, I was completely fascinated by the concept of this very strange opera that she had written. As luck would have it, the Siskel Film Center happens to be running a documentary this week that deals with this very phenomenon. Mr. Sparkle is Most Respectful to Matilda's Fleeting Passions

I went solo on this one, which seems to have been a good mood. Here's a totally unapproved IM excerpt from Telecommuniculturey HQ this afternoon:

Me: I'm probably going to go down to the siskel center to see: YANG BAN XI:
THE EIGHT MODEL WORKS tonight. I assume you have no interest in seeing that.

M: I don't know what that is, but no.

Me: HA

M: no, I don't know anything about it, but you're of course welcome to go see it

Me: [quoting from the Siskel Center's Blurb] This fascinating documentary focuses on one of the strangest chapters in the history of popular entertainment. In the 1970s, during the brutal political orthodoxy of the Cultural Revolution, the only performances permitted on stage or screen in China were a small group of propaganda operas known as the model works.

It's basically a documentary about the kind of opera that is presented in the middle of Nixon in China.

M: < M went idle >

Although I think my instincts were good on attending alone on a night when M had class at Old Town, this is the kind of documentary that I'm likely to be really obnoxious about urging everyone to see. In other words: All you local bitches are lucky that this is only running this week.

First of all, and strangely in keeping with the way the Yang Ban Xi plays out in Nixon in China (and, as I now know, with the Yang Ban Xi themselves), it's not precisely a documentary. It combines some fictional elements and a few sequences that border on fantasy, although most of it is straight interviews and historical footage.

But let me try to start at the beginning and work my way through in something approaching a sensible manner. During China's "Cultural Revolution" under Mao (1966 until his death in 1976), most art forms were outlawed. Mao placed his wife, Jiang Qing (aka Madame Mao so that I don't keep mistyping that), in charge of cultural affairs. She directly shaped the production of pro-Communist works that became the only sanctioned form of art on stage, film, television, and radio. Eventually, 8 of these became known as the model works, embodying Communist values, deifying Mao and the Revolution, and gaining huge popularity in China.

The director, Yan Ting Yuen, was born in Hong Kong shortly after the Revolution began. In the film, she engages with three generations---the aging artists of the Yang Ban Xi, her own peers (in their late 30s and 40s) who are an integral part of a present-day revival of the operas out of nostalgia, and obliquely with the young up-and-coming generation of artists, some of whom are the performers in these revivals, others who stand in for a new Chinese art, one that is syncretic and utterly eclectic.

She opens the film on a darkened sound stage. Its vertically slatted backdrop is painted with an idyllic Chinese nature scene. Downstage from it are stacks of crates with military paraphenalia propped against it. In the far, downstage right corner, barely visible in the dark and so close to the camera, is the silhouette of a woman---Madame Mao herself. She identifies herself in sharp, defensive terms, declaring herself to have been the wife of Mao and his obedient dog. Her tone softens as she reflects on her creation of the Yang Ban Xi.

This leads into some of the graniest, old-looking footage with extremely dodgy focus as we follow a woman into a ballet practice room. I worried that I might be in for 90 minutes of Warhol-quality footage, but this was some of a small amount of interview footage that seemed curiously compromised. The woman we are following turns out to be Xue Qing Hua, the China's prima ballerina in 1970 and the star of Red Women's Detachment, probably the most famous of the Yang Ban Xi. For two performances, she is joining a group of dancers (on whom she has 40 years) who are mounting a stage production of the opera.

As Yan Ting Yuen and her follow Xue Qing Hua from the practice room to downtown Shanghai to dinner with her husband to formal interviews on the sound stage and ultimately to the performance, she reflects on the experience. As a 57-year-old, she is pensive, hesitating, and pleasant. She talks about how the filmmakers had to slide slices of apples into her cheeks and shoot her from low angles to make her look like the plump, robust peasant. She seems somewhat bemused by her own naivete and how cowed she was by her sudden fame, but she makes no apologies for her participation. Thoughtfully and firmly, she insists that then as now, she was utterly devoted to ballet and performance. In the present, her only concern about participating in the revival is whether or not she still has the chops to pull off the performances, as it's been 14 years since she gave up dance (not that you would know this [bitch]).

At the same time, there isn't an ounce of self-pity when she recounts her rapid reversal of fortunes after Mao's death when she met with aggression and unfair treatment in her job and suspicion from her would-be husband's family. In one interview, she and her husband sit across from the camera, a table full of half-eaten dishes between them, and laugh over the story of their dismal wedding. With her hands she lays out the clothless table and wheezing stove as her husband pulls a face to represent the old man who asks them if they wish to be married and stamps their paper. Funny and sweet as the story is when told in this fashion, its colorlessness stands in stark contrast the garish footage of her (and practically everyone else) resplendent in red.

In some of the more formal interviews Yan Ting Yuen seems to be leading her a bit (I'm assuming that the interviewer's voice that I hear is hers), trying to get some commentary on the political aspects. Without being at all defensive or evasive, though, Xue Qing Hua admits that politics drove everything about the films, and when asked how they were most important to her, with a very genuine smile, she says that they made her husband admire her, so she got a good husband.

Among the other artists interviewed are Tong Xiang Ling, the star of Taking Tiger Mountain Strategy and his wife (sadly, I've forgotten her name and IMDB has exactly jack on this movie [Ah ha! I've found the press kit for the documentary {and I have to say, it's a little bizarre and is coloring my view of the film even as i write this}, but I've at least found the name of "Mrs. Tong"---Zhang Nanyun). Strangely, their fortunes merged and criss-crossed in the midst of the revolution. She was a real beauty and huge film star in the 1950s (the Madame voiceover somewhat pettily claims that the actress was too beautiful to be on stage). Tong Xiang Ling's family, as a whole, was marked subversive and forced into manual labor. He himself was forbidden to perform and his sentence was carried out within the theatre. One day, a car pulled up along side them as they walked down the street and Madame invited them to get in. He sang a few folk songs at her command and soon he was permitted to peform again and became a huge film star not long after. His wife never worked again.

Probably the most aimless set of interviews included in the Yang Ban Xi generation is the scriptwriter, Jin Yong Qin. He was promoted abruptly and given the challenge of cutting the interminable stage production of Taking Tiger Mountain Strategy and cutting it down to film length, all under the watchful eye of Madame Mao. For the most part, he seems more interested in discussing his most recent script for television, which is not-so-loosely based on his own rather sad life. Yan Ting Yuen is much less probing and directive with him, and he only offers limited insight into the period. He does make an interesting comment that good art and beautiful art can actually be made under restrictive circumstances like the Cultural Revolution, and conversely, all the freedom and financial support in the world don't guarantee that one will make something that is either good or lasting.

To round out the generation of artists, Yan Tin Yuen interviews Huang Xiao Tong, a Yang Ban Xi-era conductor who spoke out against the political restrictions on art (this part is nicely juxtaposed with Jin Yong Qin's comments in a similar vein), and consequently spent quite a lot of time locked up in a stable. I think using the see-sawing fates of Tong Xiang Ling and Zhang Nanyun (and, for that matter, also providing the contrasting path of Xue Qing Hua's career) was a successful tactic, but her strategy with Huang Xiao Tong is even better. He is introduced in the context of a visit from his nephew, Zhao Wei, a 30-something guitarist in love with hard rock. Rather than intruding on the visit, Yan Tin Yuen allows Zhao to enthuse about his uncle and even manages to coax a few of the old tunes out of him. In turn, he and Huang Xiao Tung compare and contrast their music, with Zhao Wei declaring that they're both avant garde, but current popular music is more natural because it can be made freely.

We also get to see Zhao Wei at home with his girlfriend/wife (not named, either in the movie or the press release). They live in a spacious, modern-looking apartment/condo filled with books, instruments and other cultural knick-knacks. He sheepishly admits that he wears his hair long now, because short hair was mandatory when he was in the military. He then talks about hearing hard rock for the first time in Japan and all the tension leaving his body. I can honestly say that I've never heard such an articulate, impassioned description of the merits of hard rock (that's almost 100% facetiousness free). But his girlfriend then speaks up in defense of more traditional folk music, claiming that those who make Western music have forgotten it and no longer understand it. The camera follows them into a bedroom where she sits down at the dulcimer and begins to tune it.

Like the interviews with Jin Yong Qin, the interviews with the other comparative youngster, Xu Yi Hui, are a bit directionless (which is really too strong, but I figure someone [possibly me] will set me on fire if I say something like "less directionful"). He is an artist himself and a fan of the genre. As we're exposed to more of his work (which include a truly hideous crate of incredibly tacky ceramic "little red books," but also photographs of piles of actual Little Red Books en fuego), it seems clear that his almost abrasively bland (yes, abrasively bland. Feel free to stoke up those fires.) manner is the result of him being a kind of Chinese Warhol. He seems dead serious (yet almost expressionless) when he admits that his favorite part of the Yang Ban Xi is the fact that the women wear so little, and he recalls becoming aware of sex and sexual attraction as a result of his reaction to the movies.

Later on, Yan Tin Yuen intimates that he has had trouble with the authorities as a result of his work (despite the fact that, overall, his work seems ambivalent toward Mao and the Cultural Revolution). He doesn't comment and she goes further and asks about trouble his friends have had, even though their work is theoretically less political. He laughs in his peculiar affectless way and says they made the mistake of sculpting nudes that the government found ugly. More disturbing, to me at least, in thinking aloud about the Yang Ban Xi, Xu Yi Hui says that he believes that the operas were successful, because they hid reality and denied its horror. His voice gaining strength, he says he believes that this is the purpose of life: to make reality tolerable by masking it.

The final piece of the puzzle is the nascent generation of artists, most of whom are incorporated in a unique way. I also seem to be more or less unique in my total enjoyment of this technique, given my survey of the limited reviews I've found. At one point, Yan Tin Yuen is in a cab and the chatty cabby offers commentary on his memories of the Yang Ban Xi, even offering to sing a bit.

As he launches into a number from, of course, Red Women's Detachment, the two young guys who are suddenly in his back seat tell him they're getting out here. They exit the cab and launch into an 80s inspired dance number. As they mooch along, busting a move in their huggy bear hats, hoodies, and Nikes, they're joined by street sweepers, dumpling house employees (HEY! Get back to work! PEOPLE NEED DUMPLINGS!), and ultimately a passel of girls who start out voguing in a beauty shop. The dance number goes on for probably 5 minutes or so before segueing back into more interviews. (In the credits, we learn that these dancers are all from the Beijing College of Modern Arts [again, I think---there is no listing in the press kit and my memory is faulty]).

The other side of that generational coin is unfortunately somewhat minimal. The 17- and 18-year-old dancers preparing for the staged revival of Red Women's Detachment offer minimal commentary in the background as the crew follows Xue Qing Hua through her rehearsals. They are giggly and somewhat in awe of her beauty, and yet the director quite crankily admonishes them for their emotionless, detached performances. It is clear that whatever sense of fear, triumph, blissful ignorance, or rage that the performers of the 60s and 70s might have felt, to these young people, the Cultural Revolution is ancient history.

We also get to see the nostalgic generation's take on art as Zhao Wei's band gives a performance at the sound studio. As they rock out (and they do rock out, complete with fenders and a lust worthy Gibson Les Paul), the slats of the backdrop flip from the idyllic nature scene to a psychadelic abstract design in pinks, oranges, and golds, fresh out of the (Western) '60s. But the last word belongs to the young hipsters who have another extended dance number on a bridge over a river. At first, this is set against quite traditional-looking architecture, but it ends with the dancers saluting the modern Shanghai skyline in true Yang Ban Xi style as an animated sun sets, casting a red glow over everything.

I'm surprised by the largely negative reaction to this movie. I'm even more surprised because most of the negative reviews seem out-and-out angry that the lines attributed to Madame Mao are ficitonalized (in fact, the credits indicate that they are adapted from Russ Terrill's Madame Mao: The White-Boned Demon). The voice overs are a bit weird, but they're actually quite few and far between. To my mind, they are a counterpoint to the historic footage (included by Yan Tin Yuen) of Madame Mao, primarily after Mao's death and during the "Gang of Four" trial. In part, the rage about this seems to be related to irritation that the film does not take (or is perceived not to take) a firm political stance, and in particular that it does not unequivocally villify Madame Mao. Given, however, the rage rained down on Madame Mao's head in many of these reviews, I find it strange that somehow her actual words would be viewed as more truthful.

To give the negative nellies their due, I agree that this isn't as cohesive as it could be. I've already pointed out the two principal cast that were kind of the odd men out, and I reiterate that I'd have liked to hear more from the young dancers mounting the revival. There's also the uneven quality of the interview footage, which rears its ugly head again later in the film. Finally, I'd add that some of the interview scenes drift. For example, we first meet Xue Qing Hua's husband at his corporate headquarters and take a walking tour of downtown Shanghai with him. He points out that every corporation has marked its territory with a skyscraper, but nothing is really made of this other than some vague references to the modern Chinese economy. I kind of get that it's capitalism in the most unlikely of places (and see below regarding cliches), but the footage doesn't really go anywhere.

But having said that the truly vehement, content-related negativity surprises me (given that I really found this fascinating and entertaining), I need to give some thought to the press kit, particularly the director's statement. I admit that my snark-o-meter is notched up by Yan Tin Yuen's statement that she wished to make a "cheerful" movie. There is too much historical footage, and too much modern-day fallout for that. I have a ready-made solution, though, because I also found this interview, which I (again with the shameless postmodernism) choose to take as more reflective of her intention and achievement here. In it, she talks about simply wanting to examine how art and artists fared during this period. How careers ended and took off. How failure followed hot on the heels of unimaginable success. How that is so typical and yet entirely unique to the era.

Going back to her statement, though, I find that despite the unfortunate use of the word cheerful (it burns me like elven rope, for lo! I am goth!girl), I'm nodding my head along with a lot of things she has to say. Most notably, I'm on board with her frustration with China: The Land of Cliches. I'm also humbled to admit that I caught myself thinking in terms of those cliches from time to time. Notably, I think I heard my mother's condescending voice in my head when I thought: "Hey! Zhao and his girlfriend's place looks almost exactly like one of those trendy eurostyle condos that the ZK and I looked at! CHINESE PEOPLE lIVE IN CRAMPED SQUALOR! Like, duh! Everybody knows that!" (Weirdly, though, I half wondered if there was supposed to be a familial relationship between Jin Yong Qin and Xu Yi Hui [similar to the uncle-nephew relationship], because they had the same cramped, squaloriffic kitchen.)

Even more cringe-worthily, I found myself impressed by the confidence and freedom with which the women of the film spoke. (I chuckled in the interview when the righteous radio!chyck also fell victim to the "Chinese women are all, like, TOTALLY OPPRESSED, OMFGWTFBBQ!" as well.) I know those cliches are ridiculous, but they have taken up residence in my reptile brain, so I've got to say that this film succeeds in making them conscious, rather than unconscious.

But the most important thing that viewing Yang Ban Xi: The Eight Model Forms gave me was, and I am being 100% serious here, new awestricken respect for the brillance of Shaolin Soccer and Kung-Fu Hustle. I had no appreciation for how much the dance sequences in those movies (and if you haven't seen them, I will really, REALLY have to bitchslap you) draw on the Yang Ban Xis. And that strikes me as incredibly ballsy. Screw doing a send up of Top Gun (and I am soooo not knocking the Hot Shots Duo [I LOVED YOU IN WALLSTREET!]), it strikes me that Stephen Chow is doing something much more akin to a satire on Platoon or Born on the Fouth of July. But hey, maybe that's just me falling victim to another Western cliche.

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