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April 15 – May 1, 2016

Xie Jin, Before and After the Cultural Revolution

A celebrated filmmaker who rose to prominence in the 1950s, fell out of favor at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, rehabilitated himself during the same period and then returned to fame and popularity, in China and abroad in the 1980s, Xie Jin (1923-2008) is one of the most remarkable artists in the history of the cinema of mainland China and, arguably, its most significant director. Yet he remains little known in the US, his earlier films unseen in this country because of the Cold War and his later films overshadowed here by the works of newer directors who, for the most part, rejected his influence.

As a young man in the 1930s, Xie studied and worked in theater, trying his hand at acting and writing. The latter skill made him a standout as a director who often wrote or co-wrote the original screenplays he filmed at a time when Chinese cinema was dominated by literary adaptations. Xie’s initial success stemmed from his ability to mix melodrama and socialist content, making his films popular both with audiences and with the Communist Party. His work could thus be said to fulfill the hopes of the progressive filmmakers in China’s prerevolutionary cinema, who had dreamed of combining the powerful popularity of Hollywood with the intellectual and political force of Soviet cinema.

His films of the 1950s and early 60s were primarily “women’s films,” focusing on female protagonists who liberated themselves from feudal oppression through revolutionary struggle on the battlefield, in the factory or on the basketball court. Whether they are sweeping epics or contemporary comedies, Xie’s films from this period reveal his eye for vivid, pictorial images, a quality that he shares with such contemporaries as King Hu, Vincente Minnelli and Luchino Visconti, all of whom combined realistically detailed mise-en-scène, fluid camera movement and striking composition within the frame.

Xie’s acclaim seemed set to reach a pinnacle with the epic Stage Sisters, but the emergence of the Cultural Revolution, during which the Communist Party sought to enforce a rigid ideological purity in all sectors of Chinese society and culture, led to the film’s being banned and to Xie being denounced for lack of rigor. He suffered a period of house arrest, during which time he was paraded to factories and schools for public denunciation, culminating in the suicide of his parents. After all filmmaking in China had been suspended for several years, the only films to be produced in the early 1970s were formulaic adaptations of revolutionary operas and a handful of other films rigidly devoted to the ideological strictures of the so-called “Gang of Four” who controlled the state during the Cultural Revolution. Xie resumed work during this time, becoming one of the preferred filmmakers of Jiang Qing, Mao’s wife, who oversaw all film production at the time.

Shortly after Mao’s death in 1976, the Cultural Revolution collapsed, and by the end of the decade, Xie was back to working with some measure of autonomy. In the early 1980s, he sought to rehabilitate himself at home and abroad by making films critical of the Cultural Revolution, while returning to his familiar mix of melodrama and socialist politics. His visual style remained more or less the same as well, although he was now more likely to shoot on location than on the soundstage and although his color palate and camera movement were both toned down in favor of a somewhat soberer realism.

He soon found his prominence challenged by the younger directors of the so-called “Fifth Generation,” including Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou, who replaced melodrama with ambiguity and ellipsis and whose work was either more harshly critical of the Maoist past or else eschewed politics altogether. Nevertheless, in his later years, Xie directed what is now considered one of his masterpieces (Hibiscus Town), became the first mainland Chinese member of both the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the Director’s Guild of America, and continued to work into his seventies.

Since his death, his place in film history has been recognized by such contemporary filmmakers as Jia Zhangke and assured by the China Film Archive’s circulation of his work worldwide. The Harvard Film Archive is pleased to present this collection of Xie’s most important films, with 35mm prints from the China Film Archive and a presentation of the “digital restoration” of Stage Sisters by the Shanghai International Film Festival. – David Pendleton

This program is presented in collaboration with the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies and the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations and coincides with "The Cultural Revolution and Cinema: An International Symposium" taking place on Saturday, April 16 from 9:30am to 5:30pm in CGIS South Building Room S020 at Harvard, 1730 Cambridge Street.

Special thanks: Richard Peña; Jie Li; Yanrong Tan—China Film Archive; Wu Jueren—Shanghai International Film Festival


Introduction by Chinese Film Scholar Chris Berry
Friday April 15 at 7pm

The Red Detachment of Women (Hong se niang zi jun)

Directed by Xie Jin. With Chen Qiang, Zhu Xijuan, Wang Xingang


China 1961, 35mm, color, 115 min. Mandarin with English subtitles

Xie Jin's powerful and colorful film tells the story of a young woman who escapes indentured servitude on Hainan Island in the 1930s to become a soldier fighting for revolution on the battlefield. A rousing potboiler that quickly became a classic, the film derives from a novel indirectly inspired by an actual women's battalion. The success of this version gave birth first to a 1964 ballet that was one of the eight so-called "model operas" and a film of the ballet made during the Cultural Revolution in 1971 (but not directed by Xie). It may well have been the success of this film that led to Xie’s rehabilitation by Jiang Qing. Despite—or perhaps because of—its revolutionary fervor, the film also reveals Xie to be a “poet of the libido,” in Tony Rayns’ phrase; the critic calls Red Detachment a “sexy tropical-gothic,” like the Powell-Pressburger Black Narcissus (1947). Print courtesy China Film Museum.

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Friday April 15 at 9:30pm

Big Li, Little Li and Old Li (Da Li, Xiao Li, he Lao Li)

Directed by Xie Jin. With Liu Xiasheng, Fan Haha, Guan Hongda
China 1962, 35mm, b/w, 86 min. Mandarin with English subtitles

The gap between Xie’s melodramas and the robust slapstick of Big Li, Little Li and Old Li demonstrates the director’s astonishing versatility. This screwball comedy casts an affectionate but farcical eye on the difficulties of three workers with the same name as they adjust to the new physical culture regimen at their factory, meant to increase health, productivity and efficiency. The film’s ideological brilliance lies in its translation of the difficulty of assimilating revolutionary change into the bodily awkwardness of its title characters. The film also finds Xie at his most exuberant, from its animated credit sequence to the sight gags that recall Frank Tashlin. Print courtesy China Film Museum.

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Introduction by VES Visiting Professor Richard Peña
Friday April 22 at 7pm

Stage Sisters AKA Two Stage Sisters (Wu tai jie mei)

Directed by Xie Jin. With Xie Fang, Cao Yindi, Deng Nan
China 1964, DCP, color, 112 min. Mandarin with English subtitles

One of the last films made in Shanghai before the Cultural Revolution, Xie Jin's most celebrated work tells a story of female solidarity and the awakening of political consciousness through the lives of two young opera performers whose success takes them from their rural beginnings to 1940s Shanghai, then occupied by Japan. There, one discovers capitalist modernity while the other, angered by the injustices around her, joins the Communist Party. Released just as the Cultural Revolution broke, the film was subject to ruthless ideological critique and quickly vanished from screens for fifteen years. When it resurfaced in 1979, it was received as a classic, and is today widely considered the crowning achievement of Chinese cinema before the emergence of the Fifth Generation in the 1980s. In its historical narration of the birth of a nation, it recalls not just Griffith but also Visconti. Print courtesy Shanghai International Film Festival.

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Friday April 22 at 9:30pm

The Herdsman (Mu Ma Ren)

Directed by Xie Jin. With Shimao Zhu, Cong Shan, Liu Qiong
China 1982, 35mm, color, 98 min. Mandarin with English subtitles

After the success of Legend of Tianyun Mountain made him the foremost director whose work was explicitly critical of Maoist excesses, Xie turns again to this stance, this time using the genre of male melodrama. The film’s conflict revolves around the ambivalences of an estranged father and son to China and to each other. The father returns to Beijing from San Francisco thirty years after fleeing the defeat of the Nationalists. Meanwhile, his son has both suffered through the Cultural Revolution and found happiness raising horses in Inner Mongolia. Attuned as ever to shifting social currents in China, Xie avoided the controversy his previous film had attracted by bringing Chinese patriotism to the fore in order to resolve The Herdsman’s generational and ideological conflicts, just as the Communist Party was turning, under Deng Xiaoping, from Maoism to Nationalism. Print courtesy China Film Museum.

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Saturday April 23 at 7pm

Hibiscus Town (Fu rong zhen)

Directed by Xie Jin. With Jiang Wen, Liu Linian, Liu Xiaoqing
China 1986, 35mm, color, 163 min. Mandarin with English subtitles

The critical look at China’s recent past in Xie Jin’s films from the 1980s finds its apotheosis in this epic melodrama about the rise and fall of a female restaurant owner. When the film was originally released, some critics compared it unfavorably to what was seen as more nuanced work by younger Chinese filmmakers about the Cultural Revolution, such as Wu Tianming’s River Without Buoys (1983) and Chen Kaige’s King of the Children (1987). Thirty years later, such criticism seems to miss the sophistication in Xie’s Dickensian ability to mix satire, critique and sentiment, and the film has been compared to Borzage’s tales of love surviving society-wide turmoil and violence. Print courtesy China Film Museum.

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Sunday April 24 at 7pm

Woman Basketball Player No. 5 (Nu lan wu hao)

Directed by Xie Jin. With Liu Qiong, Cao Qiwei,
Qin Yi
China 1957, 35mm, color, 89 min. Mandarin with English subtitles

In Xie’s third film, he perfected the combination of melodrama and socialist realism that would bring him fame. The film opens in the prerevolutionary past with a youthful love affair between an athlete and the daughter of his team’s owner. When their passion ends unhappily, the athlete goes on to become a coach, while his lover is forced into an arranged marriage. Xie uses basketball as a metaphor for sociopolitical action, with segments of daily practice used as an occasion to extol the ethics of collectivity. At the same time, the film’s emphasis on the intense echoes of past happiness has earned it comparisons to Max Ophüls. Print courtesy China Film Museum.

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Sunday May 1 at 4pm

Legend of Tianyun Mountain
(Tian yun shan chuan qi)

Directed by Xie Jin. With Shi Jianlan, Wang Fuli, Shi Weijian
China 1980, 35mm, color, 127 min. Mandarin with English subtitles

Xie Jin traces the vicissitudes of political upheaval in the People’s Republic from the 1950s to the end of the 1970s by mapping them onto the shifting relations between two friends from college and the man they both fall for. Rather than schematic allegory, Xie fashions a moving, intimate look at lives ruined by purges and ideological revision. Legend of Tianyun Mountain was among the first films to depict the injustices of the anti-Rightist campaign of the late 1950s, thus placing the Cultural Revolution in a historical context and commencing a practice of looking back at the past critically that would be taken up by the Fifth Generation filmmakers. This stance by Xie was brave but also practical, since it allowed him to separate himself from the now-disgraced Gang of Four with whom he had become identified. Print courtesy China Film Museum.

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