Director Yin Tang Yuen's Dutch-funded documentary takes a look back at an under-publicized era in Chinese history, the Cultural Revolution. Between 1966 and 1976 most forms of public entertainment were ruthlessly suppressed, including the traditional Peking Opera. In their place, Chairman Mao's third wife Jiang Qing personally supervised a new theatrical form called Yang Ban Xi, a three-hour "revolutionary model opera" whose sole function was to extol the glory of the revolution and instill pride and joy for the glorious Communist future. The docu is structured around interviews with actors, singers and conductors that performed in Yang Ban Xi's eight major productions -- the "8 Model Works."
The central attraction of Yang Ban Xi: The 8 Model Works are clips from the brightly colored film versions of the operas, which show Comrade Jiang Qing to be highly influenced by Hollywood musicals. Stylized scenery makes one show look like a Red Army version of Brigadoon, with beautiful, physically perfect performers digging trenches and hauling wheelbarrows to vibrant orchestral music. Squads of Revolutionary Guards dance like robotic versions of the Jets in West Side Story, and their female counterparts wear khaki military shorts that show off their muscled legs. The choreography emphasizes energetic movements and firm resolve. Flags, swords and rifles figure in the striking visuals, which resemble revolutionary posters come to life.
The choreography and action in the musical numbers is almost startling in effect. Men brandishing bayonet rifles do Nijinsky leaps and the women make fists and strike poses of 'collective resolve.' The lyrics idolize Chairman Mao, whose presence hovers behind the action like an unseen God. In one story a peasant girl is relieved of her chains, and cheerfully joins a Red youth corps 'to get revenge.' Male stars playing Red officers sing as they debate war strategy. The revolution is an ongoing battle. Group musical numbers end with dramatic tracking shots framing wedges of posed figures grinning to show that they've been imbued with a glorious spirit. Frozen in a state of fervor, the beautiful lead actors are almost frightening, with unblinking wide eyes and mask-like fixed grins. They're no longer human, they're transfigured. 1
The feature clips aren't the whole show, and although we wish we could see more extended scenes, Yang Ban Xi: The 8 Model Works gets down to cases with its extended interviews with Model Opera stars. The female lead, a superb dancer in the old movies, is now a ballet instructor. "They're all so young! I'm 57 and they're 17!" she says, but then shows that her ballet skills haven't diminished. She talks about having apple slices stuffed into her mouth to make her 'happy peasant' cheeks look fat and healthy. Real peasants during the Cultural Revolution were often half-starved. A retired conductor is proud of his work in the form but now thinks that Jiang Qing's dictatorial management stifled art and creativity. All works had to serve the party line exclusively.
Additional testimony brings out the harsh truth of the Cultural Revolution. Anyone associated with the banned previous opera forms was considered a suspicious anti-revolutionary, and joined the millions of Chinese relocated to rural work camps to 'realign' their thinking. An older opera star is bitter that her career was cut off just when she might have had her greatest roles. Her husband, a singer, toiled in menial jobs until a party official remembered him and asked him to perform at a banquet. Given a special dispensation, he was allowed to sing again ... under close supervision.
Photo montages show the mass executions during the Cultural Revolution; in the meantime, literally the only public theater art allowed were the Yang Bang Xi Revolutionary Model Works. They dominated movie screens until the entire nation knew the words to all the songs. Some interviewees remember seeing the films projected on giant outdoor screens. One fan of the old shows is now a big developer in Shanghai, where the city has been transformed into a giant corporate playground, a conspicuously anti-Mao profit center. Another says he loved the operas because he was a young teen, and the sight of the female dancers' exposed legs aroused him!
When the Cultural Revolution fell out of favor, its leader Jiang Qing was considered part of the "Gang of Four" and put on trial for her life. Just as her extreme cronies had visited injustice on previous professionals of all stripes, all the performers and officials of the Yang Ban Xi fell from favor and were no longer allowed to work.
The show isn't perfect. We'd like to see longer clips of the original shows and are instead given several newly-filmed musical numbers with Chinese kids going through dance routines supposedly inspired by Yang Ban Xi. They look more like tame hip-hop moves adapted for a marching corps, and are performed with a robotic lack of style. The old performances may be politically distasteful, but they show enormous spirit. We also see the younger generation's taste in music. One fairly well-to-do young man got hooked on heavy metal music in Tokyo, and now strives to play tepid imitations of music already thirty years old in the West. His girlfriend is supposed to be a more traditional artist on the dulcimer, but her instrument is out of tune and she doesn't play.
Mao is long gone but China now sees the Yang Ban Xi works as nostalgia for a different era. We see our aging female star (in sensational physical shape) going through the same moves on stage and taking bows to tumultuous applause.
Encoded with 16:9 enhancement, Yang Ban Xi: The 8 Model Works is an uneven production, at least on DVD. The pillar-boxed clips from the filmed operas are brightly colored but often scratched and worn; we wonder if the original elements for these films are in poor shape or if the producers lacked access to prime materials. The docu sections vary in quality, with some footage looking beautiful and properly framed (the new interviews) and a lot of other content blown up and cropped from less-attractive film and video sources. Oddly, some of the subtitles appear to have been married to older flat sources and, although readable, are partially cropped off screen. Chris Chang of Film Comment provides program notes on an insert flyer.
Stylistically, the show represents Comrade Jiang Qing as a silhouetted figure on an empty stage, spouting forth her opinions and edicts in apparently scripted speeches. When we finally see the real Jiang Qing in newsreels at her Gang-of-Four show trial, she is much more spirited and defiant. "I followed and served my husband Mao like a dog for 37 years" the real Jiang Qing shouts, "Where were you?!" Only forty years later, the Yang Ban Xi shows are a bizarre memento of a decade of cultural terror.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. It's weird, but the examples of this kind of 'transfiguration' in our culture that come to mind are from two sources: American advertising once used actors that waxed rhapsodic over every consumer product put out for sale, as if, "This electric can opener is the salvation of my existence!" The actors in today's ads now act smug and hip, putting out vibes of " Yeah, I know, this new car makes me ultra-cool." The other example is the look actors get on their faces when confronted by religious miracles, not just Jennifer Jones in The Song of Bernadette, but Steven Spielberg's dazzled humans reacting wide-eyed to flying saucers, beautiful ghosts and lumpy trolls from outer space -- a Nazi even gets into the act in the first Raiders movie. The Yang Bang Xi opera stars push this wild-eyed look to the point of frozen frenzy. Any more 'sincere' and they'd be as fiendishly intense as Christopher Lee baring his fangs in Horror of Dracula. This is a reference only fantasy film fans would get, but some of the faces of the male heroes of the Yang Ban Xi films look a lot like John Agar grinning in The Brain from Planet Arous: very creepy.
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