China’s Cultural Revolution endures as an ugly symbol of the human psyche’s weakness in times of groupthink. Between 1964 and 1976, Mao Tse-tung’s experiment in nation building took on a life of its own, plunging China into a period of spectacular cultural reprogramming marked by the greatest of ambitions—to effectively reboot Chinese history and culture—and the lowest forms of suffering. The skepticism of the few surrendered to the swelling deification of Mao and the savage logic of the party line. Few people, short of the Chairman himself, understood how catastrophic the revolution was to the millions suffering in secluded silence; the country—starved, anxious—was preying on itself.
Directors Carma Hinton, Richard Gordon, and Geremie Barmé—members of the celebrated Long Bow Group—sift through the official truths and unofficial conjectures for this gripping, relentlessly tragic retelling of life in revolutionary times. Morning Sun is the unofficial sequel to Gate of Heavenly Peace (1995), the trio’s three-hour tour de force about the 1989 Chinese democracy movement. Just as Gate conveyed the desperate drama of Tiananmen through grueling pacing and twisting, seemingly infinite narratives, Morning Sun‘s elegiac tone and bottom-up perspectives humanize events that are often described through faceless masses. Through key interviews and extended looks at the culture around the revolution (film, music, theater, fashion, etc.), one gets a taste of utopian mania.
The interviewees range from Luo Xiaohai, founding member of the Red Guard movement, to the widow of state president Liu Shaoqi, who was the main target of the revolution. There is a rare conversation with Song Binbin, a young student immortalized when she pinned a Red Guard armband on Mao in 1966. “Today high school kids get hysterical over rock stars . . . but these kids can laugh at what we did,” says writer Wang Lixiong. “What was there to worship in Mao? An old guy in an army suit who had nothing to do with you—he couldn’t even sing or dance.” (Though, according to a state propaganda film excerpted here, he did cure 105 deaf-mutes with his revolutionary wives’ tales.)
As the revolution was a movement of young people with the Party as parent, Morning Sun treats the intergenerational tensions and renunciations in the home as metonymic for the violence and public humiliations outside. There is an amazing sequence from Zhao Likui’s never-before-seen documentation of the “Long Marches” of 1966-1967, wherein thousands of students left home and imagined a revolutionary future by embarking on a legendarily tedious hike from China’s revolutionary past.
At its core, Morning Sun is a film about the difficulty of nostalgia. Recalling the news of China’s first atomic bomb, Xiao Ming is genuine and unembarrassed: “Back then I was ecstatic, like I had the A-bomb in my own backyard.” The speakers temper today’s orthodoxy that Mao was pure evil with their own memories of the sublime, innocent beauty of their faith. And they think of this blighted time with a regretful, humane spirit that probably has more to do with who they are now than with who they were then. Morning Sun succeeds because it gives its speakers—many of whom went from being culprits to being victims—the space to grieve, and preserves, rather than judges, their exuberant hopes. For many, the burden of seeing the grand experiment’s magnificent, arching failure was punishment enough.