FILM (1965)

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 September, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 13 September, 2009, 12:00am

The East is Red
Director: Wang Ping

Imagine a Maoist musical interpretation of the communist revolution as presented by the Chinese cousin of Florenz Ziegfeld, albeit minus scantily clad maidens, and you'll have an idea of the sweep and spectacle of this stage-bound yet cinematic epic.

Completed in late 1965, less than a year before the outbreak of the Cultural Revolution, it is a brilliant piece of propaganda that is simultaneously artistic and horrifying. Lensed within the cavernous Great Hall of the People using an anonymous cast of thousands, director Wang Ping displays a deft balance between theatre and film technique in this celluloid glorification of a regime on the verge of embarking upon one of the most destructive experiments in political history.

It's a pageant of the early 20th century leading up to the founding of the People's Republic, with vignettes espousing the official line and employing a score of patriotic songs still familiar across the mainland. The party's founding in 1921, the Long March of 1934-36, the defeat of the Japanese in 1945, and victory over Chiang Kai-shek in 1949 - these events and more unfurl in nearly two hours of music and dance, punctuated by narration so blatant in its heavy-handedness that to today's ears it comes across as a quaint relic of a bygone age.

Even more jarring for its unintended irony is the grand finale showcasing minority groups joyously celebrating their emancipation by the People's Liberation Army.

That the movie as a whole stands up as more than a combination of dogma and kitsch is due to the genuine skill and artistry on display. The balletic grace and acrobatic prowess of the performers is breathtaking, along with the stirring instrumental and vocal talents accompanying them (though unidentified, as befitting the work's collective nature, many cast members were quite famous back in the day).

The production makes excellent use of its colour cinematography along with a masterful sense of when to cut from long-shot to close-up or unobtrusively change angles, thus ensuring the theatricality never becomes static.

There's no attempt to disguise the overall staginess, the camera occasionally pulling back to reveal the teeming audience, massive chorus and huge orchestra to afford a total Great Hall experience while still maintaining the feel that this is indeed a motion picture.

Though mild by Cultural Revolution standards, it is 'cult of the personality' all the way, from the title tune which equates the Chairman with the rising sun, to the Mao-centric nature of its narrative. While clearly the product of a long-gone era, its style reverberates in contemporary culture, from North Korea's humongous displays to the opening and closing ceremonies of last year's Beijing Olympics.

The movie's Chinese title includes the words 'historical poem in music and dance', a description whose validity depends on one's philosophical point of view. Not so its technical accomplishment, which even in the 21st century remains impressive.