My People, My Country (我和我的祖国, Chen Kaige, Zhang Yibai, Guan Hu, Xue Xiaolu, Xu Zheng, Ning Hao, Wen Muye, 2019)

My People My COuntry poster 3Oct. 1, 2019 marks the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China. Supervised by Chen Kaige, My People, My Country (我和我的祖国, Wǒ hé Wǒ dě Zǔguó) presents seven short films by seven directors featuring several notable historical events from the past 70 years though not quite one for every decade (perhaps for obvious reasons). Though different in tone, what each of the segments has in common is the desire to root these national events in the personal as they were experienced by ordinary people rather than how the history books might have chosen to record them.

Told in roughly chronological order, the film opens with the founding of the Republic as comedian Huang Bo plays an eccentric engineer charged with ensuring the operation of an automatic flag pole doesn’t embarrass Chairman Mao at the big moment. In the context of the film as a whole which is fond of flags, this is rather odd because every other flag in the film is raised by hand usually by a soldier taking the responsibility extremely seriously. Yet the point is less the flag itself than the symbolic pulling together of the community to find a solution to a problem. Realising the metal on the stopper is too brittle, the engineers put out an appeal for more with seemingly the entire town turning up with everything from rusty spoons to grandma’s necklace and even a set of gold bars!

This same sense of personal sacrifice for the greater good works its way into almost all of the segments beginning with the story of China’s first atom bomb in the ‘60s for which a pure hearted engineer (Zhang Yi) first of all sacrifices his one true love and then the remainder of his life when he exposes himself to dangerous radiation all in the name of science, while in the film’s most charming episode a young boy is devastated to realise his crush is moving abroad and has to choose between chasing after her and fixing up a TV aerial so his village can see China beat the US at volleyball during the ’84 Olympics. Visions of flag waving glory eventually convince him where his duty lies, but his sacrifice is later rewarded twice over as he becomes a little local hero even if temporarily heartbroken in the way only a small boy can be.

Then again, some people are just a little self-centred like the hero (Ge You) of Ning Hao’s Welcome to Beijing who keeps trying to reconnect with his earnest teenage son only to end up connecting with a fatherless young boy during the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Chen Kaige’s sequence, meanwhile, is inspired by the story of two earthbound astronauts but similarly finds two roguish, orphaned young men connecting with a patient father figure who is able to bring them “home” by showing them a space miracle in the middle of the desert, and in the final and perhaps most directly propagandistic sequence, a tomboyish fighter pilot eventually overcomes her resentment at being relegated to a supporting role to rejoice in her colleagues’ success. Despite the overly militaristic jingoism of the parades with their obvious showcasing of China’s military power, Wen Muye’s “One for All” is in its own sense surprisingly progressive in its advancement of gender equality and mildly subversive LGBT positive themes were it not for a shoehorned in scene featuring a milquetoast “boyfriend”.

Sensitivity is not, however, very much in evidence in the sequence relating to the extremely topical issue of the Hong Kong handover. Out of touch at best, the constant references to the continuing reunification of the One China are likely to prove controversial though admittedly those they would most upset are unlikely to want to sit through a 2.5hr propaganda epic celebrating the achievements of Chinese communism. Nevertheless, it is a little galling to see the “return” to China so warmly embraced by the people of Hong Kong given current events in the city. This perhaps ill-judged sequence is the most overt piece of direct propaganda included in the otherwise unexpectedly subtle series which, despite the flag waving and eventual tank parade, tries to put the spotlight back on ordinary people living ordinary lives through the history of modern China. Of course, that necessarily also means that it leaves a lot out, deliberately refusing to engage with the less celebratory elements of China’s recent history, even as it closes with the fiercely patriotic song of the title performed by some of the ordinary heroes who have inspired its various tales of everyday heroism.


Original trailer featuring Faye Wong’s cover of the well known patriotic anthem from 1985 (no subtitles)

Youth (芳华, Feng Xiaogang, 2017)

youth posterOn the surface of things, one might be forgiven for thinking that Feng Xiaogang, “China’s Spielberg” – the director of such fluffy hits as If You Are the One and the prestige picture The Banquet, might not be the one to look to for nuanced takes on the state of his nation but, as he proved with the irony filled I am Not Madame Bovary, there has always been a persistent resistance in his superficially crowd-pleasing filmography. The exact nature and extent of that resistance is however harder to assess. Youth (芳华, Fāng huá), Feng’s latest historically probing epic, made headlines when its mainland release was blocked at short notice immediately before its international premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival and in some respects it’s easy to see why it may have raised an eyebrow or two at the censor’s board. A literal story of “youth” and the various ways that the concept becomes romanticised even when one’s own coming of age took place in otherwise difficult times, Feng’s film is also the story of modern China, baptised in the fire of the Cultural Revolution only to finally succumb to the consumerist one 15 years later.

Narrated by bystander Suizi (Zhong Chuxi), later a successful author apparently looking back on her own “youth” with a writerly eye, the tale begins in the early 1970s with two pillars of the arts division of the People’s Liberation Army. Suizi informs us the the protagonists of this story are Lui Feng (Huang Xuan) – a model soldier, and Xiaoping (Miao Miao) – a poor girl mercilessly tormented by everyone throughout her entire life. Xiaoping’s birth father has long been languishing in a re-education camp but as she’s taken her step-father’s name, Liu Feng assures her that he’s kept her bad class background off her record and will make sure no one else knows about it.

Performing propaganda ballets, the arts division is at its zenith at the height of the Cultural Revolution. The troop as a whole enjoys extreme privilege – they are well fed and cared for, evade the dangerous front line work many other members of the armed forces are subject to, and receive the respect due to them as the embodiment of a revolutionary ideal. They are, however, still guilty of the various hypocrisies coded into the system. Though many of the dancers have family members with “bad class backgrounds”, undergoing re-education or otherwise better not mentioned, the top guys and girls are the ones with parents high up in the party who use their untouchable status to paper over cracks in their own development with inherited superiority.

Lui Feng is perhaps an aberration. Nicknamed “Lei Feng” – a mythical figure created for propaganda purposes to embody the “ideal” revolutionary soldier in his selfless dedication to his comrades and communist virtues, Lui Feng is indeed a model party member whose goodness and kindness know no bounds. Unlike Lei Feng, however, he is a real man of flesh and blood not some far off and untouchable god. Having sanctified him in this way, the collective has effectively raised Lui Feng up to an unfair and unattainable ideal and is then “betrayed” on realising that Lui Feng is a man with a man’s hopes and desires. Lui Feng’s transgression is inappropriate to be sure but also somehow innocent in its naivety and his counter betrayal by the system to which he has dedicated his life all the more difficult to bear because of the unfair deification his better qualities have earned him.

Xiaoping meanwhile, who expected only betrayal, betrays the system through passive resistance in resentment of the way it has treated her friend. “Abandoned” by the collective which is the arts troop, Xiaoping exiles herself from a society she thinks has little need of her yet she then continues to serve it fully as a frontline nurse. The “youthful” idealism of Lui Feng and Xiaoping is tested as they find themselves caught up in a far off war while their former comrades dance around with wooden swords on a painted stage. Wounded in body and mind, the pair continue onwards even as their nation conspires to leave them behind.

Shifting into the ‘90s and then the 21st century, Feng’s messages become muddier and harder to grasp. In one sense what is celebrated is “youth” itself which, in this case, happened to take place against the backdrop of terrible events (albeit it ones from which many of the protagonists save Lui Feng and Xiaoping were largely shielded) enabling the growth of a generational family destroyed by a change in the political wind. It is however hard not to infer that everything was better during the turbulent ‘70s in which the delusion of innocence, if not its actual existence, was easier to bear than the soulless march into the future of Coca-Cola signs, Transformers toys and fathers who never come home because they’re too busy making money. Feng’s heroes are the ones who exiled themselves from the reality of China as a modern economic superpower, holding fast to their innate senses of honour and justice, yet in this Feng does to them exactly what he criticises his society for doing – he makes them martyrs, mythologises them as embodiments of revolutionary ideals, a pair of real life Lei Fengs all over again. In telling a story of how the revolution betrays and is betrayed, Feng makes the heroes emerge damaged but unbroken, chaste children trapped by the “innocence” of the pre-capitalist age, but whether their survival is victory or defeat remains unclear. 


Youth is currently screening at selected cinemas across the UK courtesy of CineAsia.

UK release trailer (English subtitles)