This article was corrected on March 21, 2005
A subject overdue for re-appraisal — the so-called “revolutionary operas” staged during China’s Cultural Revolution — remains teasingly out of reach in docu “Yang Ban Xi: The 8 Model Works.” Though full of fascinating material, film raises more questions than it answers about one of the most curious (and for many Chinese, most enduring) cultural artifacts of the past century. Upscale tube slots, especially on educational channels, are its likeliest market.
A brief caption notes that in the early ’60s Chairman Mao put his wife Jiang Qing in charge of all arts and she promptly commissioned a series of “model works” (yangban xi) — effectively dramatic ballets with songs — to promote Maoist Communist values. Per caption, during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) these were the only entertainments that could be seen on stage and screen in China. (Not actually true: For a start, regular feature film production recommenced in 1973.)
Despite the film’s very specific title, writer-director Yan-ting Yuen, who moved from Hong Kong to the Netherlands at age 6, makes it clear early on that this isn’t going to be a regular docu.
Jiang Qing’s thoughts are heard in voiceover and partly act as a de facto commentary.
In the early stages, this wheeze throws up some interesting facts — Jiang recognized the fairytale parallel between the model works and Hollywood musicals, both offering an idealized view of their societies — and when Jiang herself is shown speaking at her 1980-81 trial, the effect is strangely poignant. She remained unrepentant to the end, claiming she’d simply been “Mao’s loyal dog” and was now a convenient scapegoat for the whole Cultural Revolution experiment.
Yuen tracks down participants in two of the most famous model works: ballet dancer Xue Qinghua, now 57, who played the main heroine in “Red Detachment of Women,” and actor Tong Xiangling, 70, from “Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy.” Both aver how the aim was to create “true Chinese characters” in patriotic, aspirational works, and also attest to the genuine popularity of the works at the time.
Just when the docu looks like it’s settling down into the nitty-gritty of how the works were written and composed, Yuen starts pulling the subject in other directions, specifically the works’ legacy in contempo China. With the film versions now freely available on videodisc (a fact not mentioned by the docu), and restagings proving a popular curio attraction, there’s a general feeling that they deserve preservation. For an older generation, the songs are still burned in their brains; for younger people, they have a kitschy but recognizably Chinese folk-flavor that still resonates.
Rock musician Zhao Wei, whose uncle, Huang Xiaotong, conducted many of the original works, even sees parallels with his own compositions. In the docu’s most inspired idea, which concisely bridges generations, members of Beijing’s Modern Music College dance in the street to Zhao’s disco setting of a famous number from “Red Detachment” — a kind of “West Side Story” moment, celebrating a more modern cultural revolution.
Too often, however, the film remains a hostage to its ambitious construction rather than simply using the opportunity to draw back the veil on a little-documented era. Yuen tracks down a scriptwriter, Jin Yongqin, who worked on the film version of “Tiger Mountain,” shearing the three-hour stage original down to a two-hour movie. But that’s almost all that is revealed about the movies of the model works, despite the fact that several well-known directors (including Xie Jin, still alive) worked on them.
Film also never addresses the cultural contradictions of the model works: strongly nationalistic artifacts whose music had a traditional folk flavor but whose dancing remained rooted in Western ballet.
To its credit, in an interview with modern artist Xu Yihui, the docu does touch on another barely discussed aspect — the strong sexual charge of the works for adolescent males — though again this isn’t followed up.
Pic is very sloppy on small details. Subtitles, often unreadable against white backgrounds, are too small for TV broadcast. Plentiful extracts are included from the film versions of the model works, though none are identified and only some songs subtitled. At no stage are titular eight works ever listed or dated, and no chronology of the period is supplied. English titles of the works are often at variance from accepted ones, and some not even translated from their Mandarin versions.