Review: ‘Broken Silence’

The new Dutch documentary "Broken Silence" represents a missed opportunity to deal with an extremely interesting issue: the music scene in China after the Cultural Revolution. Rambling and unfocused, docu still offers some interesting insights about a new generation of Chinese composers, but in order to be shown on PBS and in other nonfiction venues it needs to be recut substantially and lose its superfluous material.

The new Dutch documentary “Broken Silence” represents a missed opportunity to deal with an extremely interesting issue: the music scene in China after the Cultural Revolution. Rambling and unfocused, docu still offers some interesting insights about a new generation of Chinese composers, but in order to be shown on PBS and in other nonfiction venues it needs to be recut substantially and lose its superfluous material.

Under the strictures of Mao’s Cultural Revolution (1966-76), all Chinese attempts at modern, innovative music came to an abrupt halt. Composers could neither study nor perform Western music, except for propagandistic operas. As a result, many younger musicians left the country — or simply switched careers. Things changed dramatically in 1978, when the Beijing Conservatory opened its doors to music-hungry students. The music scene has never been the same.

Docu centers on five talented composers who, as students, shared a little room and big passion for new, experimental musical forms. Eventually, four of them left for Europe, where they developed their skills and helped establish what’s considered to be China’s new wave of music. Central figure is Mo Wuping, an innovator who left for Paris to cultivate his knowledge and broaden his horizons.

Helmer Eline Flipse must have conducted extensive interviews with the quintet, though what we get are sketchy observations and random commentary. Still, since the subject matter is new and important, both politically and artistically, we learn about the frustrated music scene under Mao’s dictatorship, the thirst for Western influence, the first time a composer listened to — or performed — masterpieces by Beethoven or Schubert.

Almost from the very beginning, Flipse shows difficulties in keeping her potentially fascinating subject under control. Under her misguided direction, Erik Van Empel’s camera wanders around aimlessly, and soon the docu forgets its central concerns and becomes a travelogue in the manner of National Geographic. Besides lacking any discernible structure, “Broken Silence” omits such vital info as how Mo Wuping died in Paris at the young age of 33.

Though running time is only 80 minutes, docu’s truly interesting material amounts to no more than 50 minutes, which may be optimal for showing on PBS, cable and other venues for nonfiction fare.

Broken Silence

Dutch

Production

A Holland Film production. Produced by Hetty Naaijkens-Retel Helmrich. Directed, written by Eline Flipse.

Crew

Camera (color), Erik Van Empel; editor, Jan Langeveld. Reviewed at Palm Springs Film Festival, Jan. 12, 1997. Running time: 80 MIN.

With

Tan Dun, Mo Wuping, Guo Wenjing, Qu Xiao Song, Chen Quigang.
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