What makes Cecile Tang Shu-shuen's 1974 film a masterpiece is not just that she dared to make a film about the Cultural Revolution when the turmoil was not even over, it was how she broached the topic with a humanistic, non-partisan approach which remains unique today.
The film returns to our screens as part of the Film Archive's 100 Must-see Hong Kong Movies programme.
Its Chinese title, Farewell China, tells more about Tang's message here. As they flee the madness of Maoism, the five protagonists, all intellectuals, are also bidding adieu to what remains of their ideals about changing their country for the better. And as they bicker, row and fall out during their escape, they are shocked to see in themselves the shadows of those who had driven them to misery.
They don't find salvation either when they eventually arrive in Hong Kong: Tang's depiction of their pitiful, alienated existence here, in what seems to be a prosperous, gleaming metropolis, speaks of how all is lost for those who dare to dream of a better world, as both communism and capitalism ravage the human soul.
Tang ran into substantial difficulties while making and releasing the film. Shooting in Taiwan, she found it difficult to convince extras to dress up as communists or 'wear all these commie uniforms', as she told the South China Morning Post in 2004. In Hong Kong, the colonial authorities banned China Behind from public screening, a ruling which wasn't rescinded until 1987. The pro-Beijing press took umbrage at the portrayal of the mainland, and accused Tang of being a Russian spy.
Just like her previous film, 1970's period drama The Arch, China Behind is more about the human condition than politics, Tang said. 'It's the recognition of us human beings living in this world, going through all the trials and tribulations,' she told this writer eight years ago.
'Everything is so much to endure for every one of us, like the helplessness we see in the films.'
China Behind, May 5, 7pm, Hong Kong Film Archive, May 13, 2pm, Broadway Cinematheque