Free flicks are fine, but the masses ain't so malleable any more
It's 9am in a community centre in northwest Beijing and the Japanese Imperial Army is slugging it out with the Communist Eighth Route Army, while Kuomintang troops cower uselessly in the background.
Wielding farmer's scythes against enemy bayonets, blood spurts liberally onto stern- eyed soldiers defending their motherland in grey communist fatigues. It's 1937, and the Japanese are cutting a swath through China, but in Pingxing Valley, northern Shanxi province, they suffer a major defeat. Bodies lie two-deep, impaled, decapitated, sundered. A Japanese general rages: 'Who the hell are they? They must be the Communist Eighth Route Army!'
Indeed they are. And for the next two hours 50 people in this sparse room above a shopping mall in Zhongguancun watch as Communist marshal Zhu De makes mincemeat of the Japanese, humiliating the Kuomintang along the way.
Four children sneak out three-quarters of the way through the slick, 2005 production of On the Mountain of Taihang. 'It's a bit violent,' says Dong Dingding, 12.
'Of course, we'll win,' says classmate Han Jingan, 12. 'That's usually what happens.'
Chai Jingming says he prefers to watch cartoons or animated films. His friend Wang Gong nods in agreement.
In what is partly a political campaign to win the masses' hearts and partly entertainment, mainland authorities have set aside 20 million yuan this year for mobile crews to roam the country in vans, setting up ad hoc cinemas in homes, meeting halls or out in the open in villages and cities, where they will invite the poor along for a free show. The outreach campaign is aimed at those who can't afford the 30-yuan cinema ticket.
Not all the films on offer are as overtly propagandistic as On the Mountain of Taihang. Other screenings in the same week in Zhongguancun include Peacock by Gu Changwei and Kung Fu Hustle by Hong Kong's Stephen Chow Sing-chi. The choices indicate that the mainland's propaganda machine is growing more sophisticated.
On the Mountain of Taihang, starring Tony Leung Ka-fai, was directed by Wei Lian for the Bayi, or August 1, military production company, and is being marketed as the mainland's equivalent of Saving Private Ryan. It is, at least, well acted and shot - a big step forward from the crude propaganda films of the past.
Yet the government has specific goals in mind, says local culture official Wang Qiang. 'We want to spread patriotic education and national spirit,' says Wang, who says his father was from Shanxi province and fought in the Eighth Route Army. 'As for the kids, we let them watch it even though it's so bloody, because it teaches them ideology and morals. We have to teach our kids how China won the eight-year war against Japan - by shedding blood.'
Sponsored by the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television, local culture departments across the country can apply for funding, which includes a budget for a van, a projector, a small, collapsible table and money to buy films.
In Zhongguancun, a generally prosperous area of Beijing that nevertheless has pockets of poverty, the annual budget is 150,000 yuan. After the show, Guo Yuhong, chairwoman of the local film management bureau, dismantles the simple equipment that's carried back to the van, ready for another screening elsewhere. Guo says the mobile unit last year showed films to nearly a million people in northwest Haidian district, where Zhongguancun is located. 'There are a lot of people who can't afford to go to the movies,' she says.
Many of the audience are unemployed or retired. Jing Yuying, 76, and her daughter, Guo Guomin, were brought by a neighbour who discovered the screening while looking for a lawyer in the building.
A small woman missing most of her teeth, Jing says her husband, Guo Guangzhong, joined the Eighth Route Army in Shanxi aged just 14, in 1937, and fought in some of the battles depicted. 'I liked the film and thought it was pretty accurate,' she says. 'Of course, I don't like the Japanese.'
But Jing is angry that her family today is poor, in spite of her husband's status as a war hero. 'Before, we had money,' she says, with her daughter and only child beside her. 'I worked and my husband worked. Now he's in hospital and we have no money at all.' Wang tries to hush her. 'Don't discuss things like that,' he says. 'Will you write that?' he asks. 'Better not.' The authorities are sensitive about discontent among former soldiers, who in recent years have staged dozens of protests about inadequate pensions and other welfare issues.
Overall, there's a sense that, although mainlanders may be interested in watching free films, they're not easily instructed any more. The fare that propaganda authorities have to offer to draw a crowd is more diverse than it was in the 1960s, when Mao Zedong's wife and cultural tsar Jiang Qing ordered that there should be just a handful of model operas for public consumption.
Jing liked the film for the memories - but, as a piece of triumphalism, it pales beside the harsh economic realities of today. Grumbling, she's led out of the community centre as an embarrassed Wang smiles, shaking hands all around.