Undergraduate sarcasm surfaces in the strangest places, none stranger than in “The Passion of the Mao,” a documentary analysis of the late Communist Chinese leader’s legacy by a duly published, tenured, department-chairing U.S. professor of East Asian Studies. Imagine an art history expert lecturing on the Mona Lisa, then drawing a mustache on her — such is the bewildering effect first-time filmmaker Lee Feigon achieves. Curio value won’t get this far, though it could prove useful to undergrads as an audiovisual “Mao for Dummies.”
While Mao Zedong has largely been pilloried as a murderous tyrant, private weirdo and irrational ideologue since his death in 1976, Feigon advances the minority academic opinion that Mao’s orchestration of industrial, agricultural and economic growth outweighed the minuses. Yet these provocative arguments and Neil Gold’s brisk editing of archival footage are undercut throughout by deeply embarrassing directorial choices: A childish, snarky narrator (Aaron Freeman), campy graphics, crude animations, pidgin-Chinese cartoon voices, “ironic” use of Western pop and folk standards, even fart noises. Feigon clearly amuses himself here; others might not be as amused.