Sixty-one years after being labelled 'reactionary propaganda' by Mao Zedong , 'the first banned film of New China' went back on the market in DVD format on March 15.
Directed by Sun Yu and produced by Kunlun Film Studio in 1950, The Life of Wu Xun is based on the true story of a beggar who spent decades collecting, lending and saving money until he was eventually able to found three free schools for poor children in Shandong province.
The six-decade delay in the re-release of the 197-minute black-and-white classic has triggered online curiosity and sparked widespread discussion about its implications, giving momentum to a critical re-evaluation of Mao's purging of intellectuals to establish his absolute authority over Chinese culture and thinking.
Dai Qingfang, manager of audio-visual products at Guangdong Senses Culture Communication, said it had released the two-disc DVD to meet demand from customers and film collectors, usually in their 40s or 50s.
'We only produced about 500 [copies] at the request of our long-term customers,' she said. 'We weren't expecting so much attention.'
Dai said she had never expected the 99 yuan (HK$122) DVD to sell out on some websites or to receive hundreds of reviews on Douban.com, a social network site for sharing information on movies, music and books.
The central character in The Life of Wu Xun, one-third of which was filmed in 1947, is a compassionate beggar played by Zhao Dan. It was hailed as one of the 10 best films of 1950 and Communist Party leaders Zhou Enlai, Zhu De, and Hu Qiaomu had praised the movie at a screening in Zhongnanhai - the central party headquarters - before public screenings in Beijing, Tianjin and Shanghai in February 1951.
But on May 20, 1951, the People's Daily carried an editorial written by Mao headlined 'Ought to Emphasise Discussion on The Life of Wu Xun', the first serious attack on film culture on the mainland. Mao lashed out at the film for 'fanatically publicising feudal culture' and its 'tolerance for slandering the peasant revolutionary'.
In the film, a peasant calls on Wu to help him kill evil officials and local bullies. Wu replies: 'Li Zicheng [a Chinese rebel leader who overthrew the Ming dynasty and ruled China briefly as emperor of the short-lived Shun dynasty] killed many people but failed in the end. [Taiping rebellion leader] Hong Xiuquan became emperor five years ago, but quickly forgot the poor. What's the point of killing people?'
In his critique, Mao described Wu Xun as a 'reactionary feudalist ruler' and said some authors 'deny the right of class struggle by the oppressed'. 'The compliments paid to this film demonstrate the extent to which thinking in cultural circles is messed up,' he said.
The real-life Wu soon became known as a 'big hooligan, big creditor and big lord' after Mao's wife, Jiang Qing, went to Wu's hometown to gather negative information about him. Analysts said Mao couldn't tolerate the protagonist's advocacy of gradual reform instead of violent peasant revolution.
'Wu Xun was originally portrayed as a saint by some intellectuals, something that couldn't be tolerated by Mao who wanted to be seen as the only saint,' said Zhang Yaojie, a researcher at the Institute of Chinese Culture.
The film gained political importance when the criticism of Wu Xun became a tool for Mao to 'rectify deviations' in cultural circles, Zhang said. Mao soon had authorities confiscate the assets of private filmmakers and tried to weed out the 'art for art's sake' mindset, favouring films deemed as propaganda tools for the party. The number of mainland films produced plummeted from 23 in 1951 to eight the next year.
'Mao held personal grudges against intellectuals because he felt he was ignored when he worked at Peking University,' Beijing-based historian Zhang Lifan said. 'His criticism of Wu Xun also signalled his suppression of private schooling.'
Media reports about the new DVD spread rapidly on microblogs, with some recalling how criticism of the film was rekindled during the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution, when Wu's former home and his tomb were damaged. Staff who worked on the film were also persecuted.
Internet users hailed the release of the DVD, saying it would satisfy the curiosity of millions who had heard about it but never seen it. In 1985, the People's Daily reported that then Politburo member Hu Qiaomu - one of the top cadres who praised the film in 1950 - said criticism of the film was 'very one-sided, extremely violent' and therefore 'not basically correct'.
Wu Xun's reputation began to be restored in 1986 when the State Council's general administrative office issued a document titled 'Response to the Rehabilitation of Wu Xun'.
In 2005, the film was screened - though not publicly - to mark the 90th anniversary of the birth of lead actor Zhao in Shanghai. Zhao had died in 1980.
However, most analysts say the DVD's release does not signal any significant loosening in party censorship, despite internet speculation. 'We haven't seen clear relaxation of ideological control,' Zhang Lifan, the historian, said.
The DVD's cover is printed with the label 'for research purposes'. But Dai said she did not think the film contained anything sensitive, and their partner publishing house had received state approval to release it.
'This film is already very revolutionary,' one microblogger wrote. 'I really have no clue why it was banned.'