Cinema Signal:

Red Scarf Girl:
A Memoir of the Cultural Revolution
by Ji-li Jiang


. "Yang Ban XI: The Eight Model Works"

During the ten years of Chairman Mao's reign over China, the idea of a "Cultural Revolution" became, in part, Mao's wife Jiang Qing's idea to ban traditional opera and promote false, color-saturated images of an idealized version of their people. For this period, youngsters growing up were hand fed movies that were campy musicals in very bright colors depicting perfect peasants, strutting military icons, singing, dancing, and spouting the party line. It would have legacy value as sci-fi musicals if the gaudy repetition of the Yang Ban Xi, or "revolutionary operas" weren't so seriously intent on their propaganda message.

While the government allowed many to be made, it eventually brought the hammer down. Perhaps it reached the extremity of what it was willing to spend or perhaps because it eventually realized that these productions bore a resemblance to the MGM product it was emulating and was ultimately counter-productive to party indoctrination. The gross number produced eventually was boiled down to the eight best, referred to as the Eight Model Works.

To this day, as this documentary shows, Chinese people remember this propaganda "art" with emotion and the whispy fondness for a past era. The memories are nostalgic and affectionate, as one might recall the Barbie Doll figures of one's childhood. The ability to recall the words and tunes brings pleasure of fond memories without allusion to totalitarian extravagance and force feeding.

Director Yan Ting Yuen looks back to the actual footage with nostalgia laced with irony, intercutting with the cosmopolitan Singapore of today, a relatively thriving metropolis and economic powerhouse. Interviews with people in all strata of society are blended with a finely trained corps of dancers who stage a dance on the streets as a house-to-house version of "The Red Women's Detachment," one of the model Eight. The grit and backlight of the setting and choreography makes one think of a modernized update on "West Side Story." It may not approach the production level of the classic, but dance talent in this part of the world is evident.

The true glory that emerges from this account is not in the cheerful and childish illusions of yesteryear, which was probably the brightest part in a life of false, forced ideals under a sociologically destructive regime. The surprise in the footage is that the Chinese culture of today, despite domination by another repressive government, seems to maintain many strands of freedom. A sense of independence pervades the subjects in all parts of the resourceful city as its very able citizens feel far enough away from an old repression to reminisce about the fairy tale spectaculars of their childhood.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  




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A modern dancer emulates the people's film operas
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