Much Noise About Mediocre Work

by    /  February 26, 2018  / No comments

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The film “Fanghua” (Youth) is the most discussed topic in the cultural landscape in China in the recent times. The fact that the film became a victim of censorship and has been held back in September last year and first released three months later in December, has helped to boost its popularity. The director of the film, a famous actor himself, Feng Xiaogang and the scriptwriter, who is also the original novel writer, Yan Geling, gave a press conference to show their helplessness and disappointment. This has added the dramatic effect and amplified the tension.

Last month, when the film was shown in the big cities in China and on YouTube, it created an emotional sensation among the audience. Lots of tears, applause, and compliments but critiques as well. The story is about the life of a group of young people in the art and cultural troupe (wengongtuan) of the People’s Liberation Army. It explores their love, suffering, lust, and frustration with the historical background of late Cultural Revolution and the Sino-Vietnamese War in 1979.

  1. Blind Chess, a column by Tienchi Martin-Liao
  2. During the Cultural Revolution, people were sentenced to death or outright murdered because of one wrong sentence. In China today writers do not lose their lives over their poems or articles; however, they are jailed for years. My friend Liu Xiaobo for example will stay in prison til 2020; even winning the Nobel Peace Prize could not help him. In prison those lucky enough not to be sentenced to hard labor play “blind chess” to kill time AND TO TRAIN THE BRAIN NOT TO RUST. Freedom of expression is still a luxury in China. The firewall is everywhere, yet words can fly above it and so can our thoughts. My column, like the blind chess played by prisoners, is an exercise to keep our brains from rusting and the situation in China from indifference.
  3. Tienchi Martin-Liao
  4. Tienchi Martin-Liao is the president of the Independent Chinese PEN Center. Previously she worked at the Institute for Asian Affairs in Hamburg, Germany, and lectured at the Ruhr-University Bochum from 1985 to 1991. She became head of the Richard-Wilhelm Research Center for Translation in 1991 until she took a job in 2001 as director of the Laogai Research Foundation (LRF) to work on human rights issues. She was at LRF until 2009. Martin-Liao has served as deputy director of the affiliated China Information Center and was responsible for updating the Laogai Handbook and working on the Black Series, autobiographies of Chinese political prisoners, and other human rights books. She was elected president of the Independent Chinese PEN Center in October 2009 and has daily contact with online journalists in China.

The novelist Yan has created several protagonists. One is He Xiaoping, a dancer with an unlucky family background. Her mother remarried and deserted her, she was bullied and humiliated by others because of her plain looks and miserable body smell. Her situation does not improve in the troupe, she is still a target of discrimination and mistrust. She is a loser again in collective life. Yet in film, she is a beautiful girl who dances well, though she is still looked down upon by others because of her dishonest behavior. She serves as nurse later in a military hospital, and the cruel bloody scene of the wounded soldier drives her mad.

Another hero in the film is the soldier, Liu Feng. He tries to take the legendary model hero Lei Feing as his idol (their names are so similar). He is enthusiastic in helping others and is brave on the front. Yet when he tries to kiss the singer Lin, who discredits him through her crying and denunciation, Liu has to leave the troupe and work in a wooden unit. He later joins the battle against the “invisible enemy.” The patriot Liu loses one arm, but stays a helpful comrade.

The images of other protagonists are rather pale and blur. The storyteller Xiao Suizi goes through the whole story as a narrator, yet she takes on the observer’s position and keeps distance from other protagonists in the story. When she jumps into the happenings and falls in love with the trumpeter, she gives him her golden chain to use for his tooth surgery. She is a misfortunate character.

All the figures are flat without specific characteristics, like puppets they dance on the stage, and the relationships among them are loose or meaningless. This
couldn’t be the “lost generation” of the Cultural Revolution, a turbulent time period in Chinese history, when human tragic happened in almost every family. When parent were against their own children, and children were betraying their parents, students were beating their teachers up, and employees were fighting their supervisors. When the common people were against all the government officers. It was a time when the social order was destroyed and ethic was trampled by feet.

Director Feng is good at creating sentimental scenery, and this is no exception. At the farewell party, when the art troupe has to be dissolved, all the young people are singing with tears streaming down their cheeks. They hug, embrace each other as if it’s the farewell of life and death. Sure, the chapter of their young lives ends here, all the struggle in common life and experience of hard training, performance will become their memory. But was it really a period of harmonious life without conflict and intrigue? Was the political commissar really an honest and noble man, who never abused his power to take advantage of the beautiful female flesh? It is said that audiences in China are very moved by this farewell scenery. Many memories are awakened. For the 17 million youth, who have been sent out to rural areas during the so-called “Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside Movement” in the late 1960s and early 1970s the film releases many emotions. There is the memory of youth, and of the past, even when it was more bitter than sweet.

Director Feng, and also writer Yan in this case, are playing the tricks to earn the tears of their countrymen and women. For the scenery on the battlefield, we only see the fearless Chinese soldiers covered in blood, fighting fiercely against the enemy, who are hiding behind the fire and smoke. Are there no cowards among them? No one has fear of the flying bullets and canon? Director Feng stirs the mass emotion, to let each Chinese identify him/herself with the hero. The enemy is the faceless foreigners (Vietnamese) with weapons, who want to invade the Chinese territory. Soldiers of the Liberation army have to protect their holy motherland.

At the end, the protagonists, He and Liu, both in their fifties, find each other and decide to share the rest of their lives together. The film is like a montage of contemporary Chinese history, but the picture it shows is only a flat, fractional part. It is an unsatisfactory piece of work. Thank the censorship, it has added some mysterious flavor to a mediocre work.

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