The two leading lights of the Chinese ‘Fifth Generation’ made their mark with the first masterpiece from this emerging movement. Chen Kaige was considered the prodigy of the Beijing Film School, and his colleague Zhang Yimou was just a vastly talented cinematographer, who turned director. Their careers were inextricably linked in the late 1980s and early 1990s as both managed to effortlessly make great film after great film, as if inspired by rivalry.
Chen’s ‘Farewell My Concubine’ and ‘Temptress Moon’ and Zhang’s ‘Ju Dou’ and ‘Raise the Red Lantern’ are amongst the finest films to emerge in world cinema in the last two decades. However, since the turn of the millennium, their careers could not have been any more different. Chen stumbled badly with ‘Killing Me Softly’, his first English language film, and has played catch up ever since, whilst Zhang has gone from strength to strength, immersing himself into the Chinese establishment with crowd pleasing (and government pleasing) wuxia films like ‘Hero’ and ‘House of Flying Daggers’, which have been very successful internationally in the wake of Ang Lee’s ‘Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon’. Despite the ravishing surfaces of Zhang’s recent films, there doesn’t seem to be an awful lot of substance, and now that his third wuxia film ‘Curse of the Golden Flower’ has opened to pretty mediocre reviews, I’d guess that’s he’s stuck in a rut of rehashing ideas and offering steadily diminishing returns. ‘Yellow Earth’ is an artefact from the time in which these two directors were considered rebels, subtly undermining the Communist regime with their allegorical films, and this is a perfect example of this.
Set in 1939, a lone Communist soldier (Gu Quing) visits a remote village in the North. Appearing from the distance, as if Chen was paying homage to ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, this soldier is on a mission to find folk songs that can be adapted and reworked as propaganda songs for the Red Army. What ‘Yellow Earth’ really examines is the cultural clashes that the Communists would have to overcome (and they arguably failed) in order to unite the country, which is a mass of disparate cultures with different customs, languages and beliefs. He arrives during a wedding, which sees a very elaborate and traditional ceremony, but we soon discover that this village (as well as many others) practices arranged marriages, a throwback to feudalism. This is in keeping in many ways with the early films of Zhang Yimou (‘Raise The Red Lantern’, ‘Ju Dou’), which were preoccupied with the historical subjugation of women in China. The solider remains uneasy about these feudal customs and speaks of the more modern ideals of the Communist Party. This awakens the libertarian instincts of Cuiqiao, a young girl who fears she will soon be forced to marry a much older man. Gu Quing tells her stories of women fighting in the Red Army, women finding their own husbands, and sexual equality, which increases her resistance to her village’s customs, but leads to a tragic conclusion. We hear of her older sister, who also married an older man but who is unhappy, and was beaten badly when she ran away.
Gu Quing represents the entire Communist Party. He makes promises for the future; to unite the disparate Chinese peoples, to replace outmoded customs, and teaches them the anthem “The Communist Party Will Save Us All”, the repeated chanting of which takes on a more ironic tone in time. Of course he cannot keep these promises, which might be Chen’s underlying motives – which the Party eventually failed to meet these objectives. Whilst it might control the cities and densely populated areas with an iron grip, the many remote villages inhabited by simple rural folk are completely out of the loop and largely left to their devices, with the same customs they always enjoyed. Cuiqiao wants to enlist in the Red Army and enjoy the freedoms afforded to women in the Party, and Gu Quing promises to return for her once he completes his mission and gets approval to do so. He fails of course, and before he can return, Cuiqiao is engaged to be married to a much older man she has never met. Cuiqiao is nothing more than a commodity to be sold by her father to her prospective husband. He tells her she was promised to him ever since he paid for her mother’s funeral.
Chen then introduces a scene that is deliciously ironic. In Yan’an, there is an elaborate ceremony for sons joining the Red Army, with music borrowed from the arranged marriages in the Shaanbe village. Chen hints at the Communists appropriating aspects of the feudal customs of the villages, but not realising the significance of them – these are the very same customs that the Communists abhor and vowed to outlaw!
‘Yellow Earth’ then reaches its tragic conclusion; that of Cuiqiao’s suicide. Without Gu Quing’s return, there is no hope, only suffering. Chen inserts another ironic moment; as she steers her boat into the river she sings “The Communist Party Will Save Us All”, and drowns herself at the point she reaches the word ‘Communist’, insinuating that there are no guarantees of this, that their promises are empty and that once again, they cannot change the customs and values of these feudal villages. Gu Quing returns of course, too late to have done anything. Does Chen’s closing scene of a prayer for rain, which seems almost Pagan, reinforce the inherent cultural differences between the villages and their so-called saviours?
It’s interesting that ‘Yellow Earth’ received a fairly easy ride from the Chinese censors given that it relentlessly questions the ability of the Communists to unite the Chinese peoples. Presumably they overlooked this in favour of the archaic customs of the countryside which contrasted with the modern ideals of the Communists. Considering that China had no film industry of any real note since the Communists took power, ‘Yellow Earth’ is simply a stunning exhibition of the creative talents of Chen and Zhang, whose photography is breathtaking. Over the next decade, the ‘Fifth Generation’ went from strength to strength, and ‘Yellow Earth’ remains one of its finest films. Whilst they remained peripheral directors, Chen and Zhang were amongst the most interesting and talented film makers in world cinema. Since they immersed themselves into the establishment, they’ve managed to get stuck into a rut. Hopefully they can regain their momentum, but who knows whether their time has simply passed as China changes.