Afunny and often ingeniously worked-out spoof docu on China’s Great Helmsman, “Mao, the Real Man” is a cheeky bauble that should find a ready slot in fests and discerning tube skeds. Hourlong item would benefit from being shown straight , with no advance publicity, so auds can enjoy the pleasure of slowly realizing when their legs are being pulled.
Opening gives no clue at all about what is in store, with a certain Jonathan W. Highstone, an art history prof at Michigan U., straight-facedly expounding on Mao’s early life and how Mao’s elder brother left China in 1906 for Chicago. There, per Highstone, he skimmed the fish trade with a Russian friend called Nikita, and later, under the nickname Wasp, got caught up in mob wars.
In 1935, Wasp mysteriously disappeared from Chitown at the same time his younger bro was slogging up through China on the Long March. Highstone then reveals startling pix, taken when Mao reached Yan’an, showing a much more robust future chairman than the one that set out on the Long March two years earlier. Highstone’s conclusion: the real Mao was dumped, or died, en route, and his place was taken by his Chicago mobster brother.
This, claims the Yank prof, explains how the Communists got hold of masses of military hardware (through the Italian mob) and why Mao’s personality hardened during subsequent years. With the help of expert “witnesses,” the docu posits Wasp precipitating the Korean War, being involved with Jack Ruby and even having a connection with JFK’s assassination.
Aside from a running interview with an overplayed Italian mobster, the spoof keeps its feet admirably on the ground, assembling a mass of real archive footage on 20th-century Chinese history and following its own logic with Cartesian thoroughness. Final section is more loony tunes, but by then even the dumbest will have tuned in to the joke.
Behind-the-camera talent includes lenser Nyika Jancso (son of Miklos Jancso) and trim editing from Gabriella Koncz. Pic wittily re-creates the cliches of docu interviews, even down to the slightly clumsy exposition of the egghead Highstone.