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cause? How does the film draw connections between the failures of Communism and Chinese culture? Hailed as China’s debut into the international film market, Yellow Earth represents the birth of a new era in Chinese filmmaking. Yellow Earth was the first of many films made by fifth-generation filmmakers that took a culturally self-reflective view of China. They were seeking the roots of their country that had been lost in the disaster of Communism. These films were controversial as they
presented an historical and cultural reading that was divorced from those of the Chinese state. Indeed, this generation had been
subjected to turbulent changes in the Communist Chinese state that allowed them to form unique and individualistic views of their nation. Chen Kaige and other fifth-generation filmmakers survived exile in the countryside1, the Cultural Revolution, the fall of Mao Zedong and the rise of Deng Xiaoping. Yellow Earth is one of the first examples of films from this period of cultural critique. Set in 1939 Japanese occupied China, the film depicts the story of a young Communist soldier’s sojourn in a peasant household in North Shaanxi. In Yellow Earth, Chen Kaige uses various cinematic techniques to depict his view that Communism was a tragic historical failure. He also attributes the failure of Communism to its A. Lam, Identity, Tradition and Globalism: Post-Cultural Revolution Chinese Feature Films 1977-1996, VDM Aktiengesellschaft, Germany, 2008, p. 129
1997. Gu Qing caresses Cuiqiao’s yearnings with stories of women’s liberation in the Communist Eighth Route army. Despite its subtle cinematography and storyline. p. Transnational Chinese Cinemas: Identity. Honolulu. Minford. writes Chinese cinema academic Yi Zheng. her sufferings. He also greatly emphasizes the close relationship between Chinese traditional culture and the land. 1989. Yellow Earths depicts a scathing critique of the dire failure of Communism. and futile struggle… are solicited to reflect the fate of Chinese people…3”. daughter of the peasant household’s patriarch. G. and Cuiqiao.inability to pull the Chinese people out of their oppressive communitarian culture. the Communist soldier.. Throughout the film. and we don’t sell them. portrays the relationship between the communist doctrine and the Chinese people. For example. Nationhood and Gender. J. UK. changed. Young Cuiqiao is waiting her own dreaded arranged marriage. Seeds of Fire: Chinese Voices of Conscience. University of Hawai’i Press. 2 .” Cuiqiao’s father responds bitterly “we farmers have our rules”.. “Cuiqiao’s life and death as a poor peasant’s daughter. while Cuiqiao listens intently in the background. citing the land as part of the tyrannical bind that keeps his people in “primitive obscurity2”. and begins Baumé. S. 349. when Gu Qing first arrives in the peasant he begins discussing the wedding ceremony he household witnessed earlier that day. yearnings. 3 Hsiao-peng Lu. The relationship between Gu Qing. He tells Cuiqiao’s father “our women This custom must be aren’t worthless. Bloodaxe Books.
seen earlier in their discussion of child marriage with Cuiqiao’s father. Gu Qing explains to her that he can’t because “we officials are bound by regulations…we abide by these rules to fight for our country”. She rows from the shore in her small boat and begins singing a Communist ditty. Gu Qing actively fosters Cuiqiao’s He tells admiration for him. Paradoxically. suffering in her arranged marriage and forlorn that Gu Qin did not return to save her. but that the promises it made to the Chinese people and its failure to meet them had calamitous consequences for the state. taught to her by Gu Qin: “…the piebald cock flies over the wall. Chen Kaige reveals hypocrisy and impotence in the young Communist soldier. heartbroken. Chen Kaige then uses the death of Cuiqiao to argue that the Communist Party was not only impotent. Cuiqiao. Cuiqiao. The Communist Party was also once full of promises for the nation. the Communist Party shall save us . and becomes impotent. decides to cross the Yellow River to join the Eighth Route army on the other side. goes to Gu Qing in her bridal dress and implores him to take her with him. Gu Qin is thus exposed as powerless against the rules of Chinese society.to look at Gu Qin as her saviour from her terrible fate. but nonetheless decides to leave. But as the film progresses. Communism is gradually revealed as a product of the society it tries to fight against. Cuiqiao he will be back in a few months. But as the film develops. before promising to come back and get her. Gu Qing’s obligation to rules mirrors that of Cuiqiao’s father.
Cuiqiao and Hanhan. 1989. are the most voiceless and powerless characters in the film. and emphasize the suffering the Chinese people endured as a result. Seeds of Fire: Chinese Voices of Conscience. “[Hanhan]…doesn’t say a word for ages. p. Bloodaxe Books. The most controversial and quintessential of these techniques “can be summed up in a single word: concealment4”. the two child protagonists.. 4 . That Cuiqiao drowns in the river trying to join the Communist army implies her death can be blamed on Gu Qin. says Chen Kaige. burdened by the country’s culture and traditions5. Hanhan remains silent throughout most of the movie. G. In Yellow Earth. Moments in the film that are silent. This is completely unrealistic… Children…are Baumé.. J. Chen Kaige uses a range of innovative cinematography devices to depict the oppression of the individual in outdated. Therefore. 5 Hsiao-peng Lu.all!” But she cannot finish the words “Communist party” before she drowns in the river. p. S. UK. 111. and paradoxically contain some of the most important information of the film. it is evident that Chen Kaige used the relationship between Gu Qin and Cuiqiao in Yellow Earth to portray the immense failure of the Communist party in China. voicelessness and isolation of the individual in traditional Chinese communitarian culture. 88. communitarian Chinese culture. which shocked critics of the time. Minford. faces and thoughts that are hidden and spaces that are empty are infinitely complex. Chen Kaige uses these aural and visual voids to emphasize the powerlessness. They represent China’s future.
. but the audience often only see Hanhan when he is labouring in the fields. Hanhan becomes a symbol of the severity of Chinese communitarian culture. In this scene. This suggests that he is unnaturally silent because has been subjected to hard labour by his father to help support their poor family. the camera focuses only on her face. complained veteran director Han Shangyi.” he says.. they are almost never seen facing one another. In this.energetic and loveable…6”. his voice cracking with tears. One poignant example of this is when Cuiqiao’s father tells her she will soon be married off to pay for her mother’s funeral and her brother’s wedding. Not only does it make him powerless and estranged. Significantly. you were promised as a child. This alienating portrayal of a conversation is used throughout the film to exacerbate the characters inability to communicate with each other. 6 Ibid. Cuiqiao is devastated by the news. when characters in Yellow Earth do talk to each other. while her father sobs with guilt of the decision he has been forced to make. However. 90. Chen Kaige thus reveals the death of the individual in communitarian Chinese society. For the entirety of the scene. Chen Kaige’s choice for Hanhan to be silent is important. They become so weighted by their cultural ancestry that they cannot talk and are unable to help each other. while her father tells her she will be married off-screen. p. “Every girl takes this path…anyway.
Cuiqiao’s father rises to look at the opaque sky.. states in an interview “We wanted to express a number of things in Yellow Earth: the boundless magnificence of the heavens. oppressive land. Gu Qin sits with the family for a meal of millet gruel in the field. He portrays the harsh earth as oppressive. sky and water. like their harsh communitarian cultural legacy. a disorientating technique so foreign to Western filmmaking. In this. . For example. 88. p. The cry of a people from the depths of primitive obscurity. Zhang Yimou. Chen Kaige also depicts the Chinese people’s dependence on their land and sky. Yellow Earth’s cinematographer. This emptiness emphasizes the sheer power 7 Ibid. the Chinese people become enduring. Chen Kaige also uses emptiness and voicelessness to focus on the complex relationship between Chinese cultural heritages and the land. who nonetheless leaves her. and thus their respect for it. Beyond oppression. Cuiqiao’s father becomes inferior to the heavens that stretch up two-thirds of the frame above him. the supporting vastness of the earth… the endurance of a nation. In a masterfully composed shot. Shots of the earth and sky without a focal point allows the camera to get lost in the vastness of the natural surrounds. and their strength…7” Countless long shots of the dusty Loess plateau with a single tiny figure drowning in the undulations of the earth visually portray the limitless. The voice of the ill-fated Cuiqiao echoes eternally over the plateau to reach Gu Qin. and the Chinese people’s bind to it for sustenance.In Yellow Earth.
Also. she doesn’t know!” Cuiqiao sings wonderfully and without any audience but the river. In this scene Chen . plough it up. depict the river’s eternal. She sings of her powerlessness “Cuiqiao wants to speak. and the Chinese people’s dependence on it for water.of the sky against the Chinese people. not unlike those used to portray the Loess plateau. Would you? Have you no respect for it?” This scene depicts the Chinese people’s respect for their land. Looks like drought this year. Gu Qin laughs at this superstition. it lets you tread on it. Cuiqiao’s father then says “always clouds. depicts Cuiqiao as not only enslaved to the river. but how. before reciting a prayer to the dragon god for rain. Cuiqiao’s infinite trips to the river to collect water. The endless shots of the river’s muddy currents. no rain. and their deep-rooted strength amongst the harsh elements. Chen Kaige also uses many other filmic techniques to depict the raging currents of the Yellow River. emphasizing the sad loss of her fertile beauty in an oppressive land and backward culture that endeavours to imprison her. but Cuiqiao’s father tells him “this old yellow earth. weighted presence. but enslaved to her family to provide water. Cuiqiao’s voice that drifts across the Yellow River as she toils is a very important symbol in a movie that is mostly silent. her small shoulders bearing the weight of huge water vessels. That Cuiqiao ironically drowns in an area plagued by drought further conveys the mercilessness of the land. no harvest”. This loss is exacerbated when Cuiqiao tragically drowns in the Yellow River.
Hanhan.Kaige identifies her death with the unforgiving river and Chinese traditional society. the rushing peasants parallel the rushing Yellow River. and the harsh land that formed the Chinese nation. The eternal endurance of the peasantry tramples the promises of Communism and children of China’s future. “the cradle of Chinese civilisation”8. Chinese traditional society is represented by the Yellow River. runs toward Gu Qin. stands up and turns to see Gu Qin coming over the hill. In Yellow Earth. 8 Hsiao-peng Lu. Hanhan and Gu Qin never reach each other. then rise to run to the statue of the river god. p. leaden waters of Chinese culture trying to reach Gu Qin. Chen Kaige uses a range of cinematic techniques to portray oppressive Chinese traditional culture. who is still mourning the death of his sister. They both drown in the muddy. . The peasants. Chen Kaige depicts Hanhan and Cuiqiao meeting the same fate. Yingjin Zhang. S. The Hong Kong based film scholar. wail and Hanhan kowtow.. 111. Chen Kaige argues that Communism failed because of its inability to bring the Chinese people out of their oppressive. and that Cuiqiao is escaping her arranged marriage. Despite their eternal struggle. cyclical relationship with their outdated culture and harsh land. The very last scene where the village prays to the dragon king for rain exemplifies this. in Yellow Earth. But he cannot push through the crowd of running villagers and Gu Qin cannot make it up over the hill. Hence. In this powerful scene. who represents Communism. adorned in leaf crowns.
Routledge. Prior to the new era. p. 2004. who were steeped in backward Chinese communitarian culture.. It is in fact the cultural roots of China that Chen Kaige searches for in Yellow Earth.wrote of Yellow Earth “the Communist cadre is no longer competent in his ideological indoctrination in a village plagued by drought and peasants are no longer spontaneous in their response to call for revolution.. Communism was a doctrinal catastrophe that impacted greatly on Chen Kaige’s life. Chinese National Cinemas.. Communism failed because it could not meets the needs of the people. and that the nation now stood in a cultural black hole. 9 . 141. Y. Chen Kaige. also portrays that the cost of this historical disaster was the lives and futures of many Chinese people. but instead deeply entrenched in their superstitious belief in the forever powerful dragon king9. He uses a range of cinematographic techniques to argue that Communism was such a Zhang. A. He was one of the first amongst the fifth-generation filmmakers to ask the question “what is wrong with our culture that led to our disgraceful recent history?10” What Chen Kaige offers in Yellow Earth is his own answer to that question. J. His re-education by Yunan peasants on a rubber farm in 1968 particularly influenced his understanding of the realities of the Communist doctrine and his country’s cultural roots. 236 10 Lam. Yellow Earth is a masterful portrayal of Chen Kaige’s understanding of the Communist cause before the 1980s. p. New York.” This statement perfectly encapsulates Chen Kaige’s message that he depicts in this final scene.
he conveys the Chinese people as strong and enduring. But eventually. but burdened by their cultural heritage. p.. 93. 11 Baumé. Chen Kaige finally asks what possibilities lay over the horizon for such an immensely powerful but terribly scarred country as China. the weight of the land and the legacy of thousands of years of Chinese tradition prevailed and the collapse of Communism had huge costs on Chinese society. G. . In this. traditional culture.dire failure because it promised to liberate the Chinese people from their oppressive. But Chen Kaige’s depiction of Communism and Chinese culture is not at all didactic. Conversely. He depicts the “great potential” of their energy “if properly tapped and directed11”.
Honolulu. Nationhood and Gender. Minford... Y. S. Canberra. VDM Aktiengesellschaft. New York. 1984.. Identity. 2004. 1997.Bibliography Yellow Earth. 1989. Tradition and Globalism: Post-Cultural Revolution Chinese Feature Films 1977-1996.. University of Hawai’i Press. G. . A. released by Ronin Films. Bloodaxe Books. Hsiao-peng Lu. Chinese National Cinemas. J. Routledge. Germany. Seeds of Fire: Chinese Voices of Conscience. Transnational Chinese Cinemas: Identity. Baumé. Lam.. Zhang. 2008. motion picture. UK. J.
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