What was the most-seen movie ever made? Was it Gone With the Wind? Star Wars? Titanic? How about Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy
or The Red Detachment of Women?
It’s a trick question: The latter titles were more than mere movies. Between 1966 and 1976, they were China’s mass media—ubiquitously staged, broadcast, and screened. Among other things, the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution was an exercise in cultural consolidation in which the only sanctioned entertainments were those “model” revolutionary operas and ballets largely devised by Mao’s wife, former movie actress Jiang Qing. These were heroic tales of worker-peasant triumph over voracious landlords, Kuomintang thugs, Japanese soldiers, and capitalist running dogs. They featured smiling dancers mobilized in fist-clenched formation or resolutely up on pointe, rifles aimed. Most often, the whole shebang ended with a mass anthem, the red sun rising in the radiant future behind an ecstatic chorus.
China’s film industry shut down in 1966 and all but a few old movies were proscribed; when production resumed four years later, it was to produce movie versions or equivalents of the yang ban xi [eight model works]. By the time they were banned in the mid ’70s, close to a billion people knew them by heart. Along with Chairman Mao, these images of mobilized joy were the face of China, shown at international film festivals— The Red Detachment of Women won a prize at Venice—and distributed as postcards to Chinatown sundry stores. (I collected them as a film student to make the world’s cheapest Busby Berkeley spectacular.)
Had culture ever been more instrumentalized? Yan-Ting Yuen’s new documentary
Yang Ban Xi: The 8 Model Works sifts through the residue of this episode. Yuen, relocated from Hong Kong to the Netherlands as a child, is what Hans Magnus Enzensberger once called a “tourist of the revolution.” But the revolution is long over. The filmmaker interviews Xue Qinghua, the now middle-aged star of The Red Detachment of Women, who strikes an old pose and recalls tucking slices of apples in her cheeks to project a healthy, peasant fullness. The mode throughout is similarly personal. Tong Xiangling, hero of Taking Tiger Mountain—now squawking his way through comic TV commercials— reveals that he was chosen for the model opera by Jiang Qing herself, even as his wife was forced from the stage of the Beijing opera as the exponent of a degenerate form.
Yuen intermittently draws on Jiang’s thoughts, articulating the defiant pride that she took in developing the yang ban xi: “I was Mao’s obedient dog.” Jiang may have been more honest than Leni Riefenstahl, but no less revealing than her apparatchik megalomania are the recollections of the model opera’s captive audience. Truly, the pop culture of adolescence lives in the heart forever. Several male interviewees describe the impact of the adorable short-short outfits worn by Detachment‘s uniformed militants: “Our first sexual feelings were aroused by yang ban xi.” Indeed, Xue Qinghua’s husband (a realtor from a “very revolutionary family,” the dancer notes) was in love with her image long before they ever met.
More impressionist than analytical, Yang Ban Xi leaves many questions unanswered—not least the names and dates of the various yang ban xi. And, although the filmmaker at one point provides some necessary counterpoint with a downbeat montage of Li Zhensheng’s harrowing Cultural Revolution photographs, the history is often vague. It’s not clear how the model works were distilled from traditional Chinese forms; Yuen compares them to Hollywood musicals but doesn’t mention a more significant antecedent in the Stalinist entertainments of the late ’40s and early ’50s. (As with the yang ban xi, there was literally nothing else to see other than these historic super-productions of World War II triumph or insanely cheerful musical glorifications of collective farming.)
Anxious to demonstrate how China has changed, Yuen includes contemporary rock and hip-hop performances, some of which reference the yang ban xi. Initially re- televised in the late ’80s, the model works have scarcely been swept into history’s dustbin. Xue Qinghua emerges from retirement to restage The Red Detachment of Women. The actress’s attitude is ambiguous—as is the filmmaker’s. Is the opera an object of shame or pride, derision or nostalgia? Evidence of Chinese underdevelopment or cultural creativity? In a recent interview with The Guardian, Yuen insists that “you just have to look at the yang ban xi with irony.” But that’s by no means apparent in her film.
Both frustrating and fascinating, Yuen’s documentary is something of a stray footnote. It requires not only the context of the yang ban xi but the perspective of other movies on the subject of entertainment and utopia. Two that immediately come to mind are Jia Zhangke’s Platform, an epic meditation on the nature of Chinese pop culture, and Dusan Makavejev’s WR: Mysteries of the Organism—the funniest, saddest movie ever made about the subject of the 20th century, the appeal and betrayal of Communism.