Film studies: Loving Zhou

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 26 June, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 26 June, 2008, 12:00am

Hyperbole dominates the publicity material for the quaintly named Qing Gui Zhou Enlai (rendered in English as In Love with Zhou Enlai in a Chinese Culture Ministry website): He was the 'the most caring premier in the people's eyes', the 'loyal guardian of the country's interests', 'the perfect embodiment of our national culture'.

This is hardly surprising, as the film was aimed at celebrating the 110th anniversary of Zhou's birth on March 5. The film was produced by the Central Newsreels and Documentary Film Studio, an arm of China Central Television.

Zhou has been the subject of a long line of glowing screen tributes, but Qing Gui Zhou Enlai is probably the first to zero in on his private life. Its title sounds like something conjured up for a soap opera. The blurb describes him, first and foremost, a 'tender husband in his wife's heart'. His marriage to Deng Yingchao is used as the pivot around which his life is examined in the film.

It's highly probable the producers had romantic serials in mind when they were making the film. After all, 21st century Chinese audiences no longer feed solely on ideologically rigid material as after-work entertainment. Even the most fervent patriots among the new generation today are hardly likely to identify fully with the archetypal national icons propaganda departments cook up.

As scepticism about squeaky-clean heroes grows, it's understandable that even those trying to commemorate Zhou - the Teflon man of 20th century Chinese history - would opt for soft-sell as a strategy.

Qing Gui Zhou Enlai is being shown in Hong Kong as part of a Zhou-worshipping showcase put together by the South China Film Industry Workers Union. The films illustrate the evolution of the mainland's celluloid eulogies to the late premier.

Nearly all films about Zhou seek to highlight qualities such as tirelessness, patience and compassion which, according to official hagiography, he displayed in abundance and which helped steer the country away from the abyss during the many political maelstroms of the Mao Zedong era.

Another highlight of the showcase is the 165-minute Zhou Enlai (1991), which shows him as an unflappable navigator protecting leading politicians and national industries from the excesses of the Cultural Revolution. It's an epic in length and scope: frequent flashbacks depict Zhou's deeds during the Long March and the second world war, as well as his role in consolidating communist rule after 1949.

The film tries to show that Zhou displayed selfless devotion to work even during his last days, when he was stricken with cancer and being targeted by the much reviled Gang of Four. Incidentally, another of the film's heroes, and perhaps the one whose image it most intended to boost when it came out, was Deng Xiaoping.

Some other films in the retrospective also focus on Zhou's role - successful, needless to say - as a wartime negotiator and peacetime diplomat. Chongqing Negotiation (1993) shows him building a truce with the Kuomintang as all out civil war looms after the end of the second world war in 1945.

The documentary Zhou Enlai Waijiao Fengyun (Zhou in foreign relations - 1997) and the feature-film Zhou Enlai in Bandung (2002) add to the folklore deifying him as a charismatic statesman on the international stage, helping China to become a power to reckon with.

The hero image is further burnished in last year's The First of August. The title refers to the date of the Nanchang Uprising in 1927, during which a company of revolutionaries led by Zhou and He Long rose up against the Kuomintang and, in the process, ensured the communists remained Chiang Kai-shek's most implacable enemies for the next 50 years.

While films praising Zhou's political prowess can be expected to remain the mainstream for years to come - it would be hard to imagine the August First Film Studio, run by the People's Liberation Army to do otherwise - Qing Gui Zhou Enlai might signal that the authorities wish to accommodate the demands of popular culture in their ideological work. It's unlikely that Chinese political icons would be presented as flawed or self-doubting in the foreseeable future. But the chances of them looking more human seem to be increasing.

The showcase of Zhou Enlai films begins tomorrow and runs until July 6 at the Hong Kong Space Museum and the Hong Kong Film Archive