Film appreciation: Yellow Earth - subtle messages in Chen Kaige classic

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 21 March, 2015, 10:57pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 21 March, 2015, 10:57pm

Yellow Earth
Wang Xueqi, Xue Bai, Tan Tuo
Director: Chen Kaige

Yellow Earth is a classic of world cinema and one of the most important films ever made in China. Not only did it launch the careers of director Chen Kaige and cinematographer Zhang Yimou, but it also put the nascent "Fifth Generation" of filmmakers into the international spotlight.

Aesthetically, it was a radical breakthrough, too. Its loose structure and ambiguous messages stood in stark contrast to the didactic social realist model, copied from communist Russia, that had dictated film style and content on the mainland after the founding of the People's Republic in 1949.

The film is set in 1939, among peasant farmers in the northwest province of Shaanxi, sometimes called the cradle of Chinese civilisation. The land is barren and food is hard to come by. A young girl, Cuiqiao, is terrified of a marriage that her father, eyeing the dowry, has arranged for her. Then Gu Qing, a young communist cadre from Yanan, Mao's headquarters, arrives in the village to collect folk songs, which were part of Mao's propaganda campaign at that time.

Cuiqiao is inspired by Gu's stories of girls fighting in the army, and asks him whether she can follow him back to Yanan and join the communists. He says all army recruits need to be approved and she must wait for his return. While Cuiqiao waits, she is married. She tries to escape to an army unit camping on the other side of the Yellow River, but drowns trying to row across in the dark.

Yellow Earth is a film of great and raw beauty, although it's often remembered for its political subtext. It does not directly criticise the Communist Party, but it does point to the fact that the party had not improved the lives of all the people in the way it claimed. The point is, to a certain extent, metaphysical: how could humankind ever hope to wring changes from such a great and all-powerful natural landscape? But writings about the film have noted that the way it closes - with the peasants performing an ancient rain dance - sent a message about the party's failure to improve their lot.

Yellow Earth had supporters and detractors in China. Even the style of the film, which was open-ended and thus lacked a definitive meaning, came under fire. Zhang and Chen were pragmatic in defence of their work, and were flexible with their interpretations to combat criticisms.

But the film stunned audiences the first time it screened outside China, at the Hong Kong International Film Festival in 1985. Viewers could not believe such a sophisticated film could come out of China, and an after-screening discussion continued long after the film ended. A prize at the Hawaii International Film Festival helped garner more attention abroad - and suddenly the Fifth Generation had credibility.