Yellow Earth (1984)

Review #1,614






THE SCOOP
Director:  Chen Kaige
Cast:  Wang Xueqi, Xue Bai, Liu Quiang, Tan Tuo
Plot:  A Communist soldier is sent to the countryside to collect folk songs for the Revolution.  He stays with a peasant family and learns that the happy songs he was sent to collect do not exist; the songs he finds are about hardship and suffering. 

Genre:  Drama / Music
Awards:  Won Silver Leopard & Prize of the Ecumenical Jury - Special Mention (Locarno)
Runtime:  89 mins
Rating:  PG (passed clean)
Source:  China Film Archive

IN RETROSPECT (Spoilers: NO)
Much has been made of the importance of Chen Kaige’s debut feature, not least because it was the very first ‘modern’ Mainland Chinese film.  It not only launched Chen as a filmmaker of promise, but also Zhang Yimou (cinematographer of Yellow Earth), who would become the figurehead of the 5th Generation, with such luminous works as Ju Dou (1990), Raise the Red Lantern (1991) and To Live (1994).  

But it is Yellow Earth that opened the doors to a new mode of filmmaking in the country, while at the same time, giving the international arthouse audience another reason to cheer for Chinese cinema, particularly at a time when Taiwan and Hong Kong were producing some of their finest films ever.  

A tale of physical hardship and the tradition of forced marriage, Chen’s work centers on a peasant family—an old man, his daughter and younger son—who hosts a travelling Communist solider as he collects traditional songs from the countryside folks to refashion them into morale-boosting hymns for his comrades as they prepare to fight the Japanese.  

Set in the late 1930s, Yellow Earth is a social-realist work that is imbued with a rare double-poetry—it is poetic visually as well as lyrically.  The songs, sung with fervour, hide the peasants’ poverty and personal tragedies.  The old man laments about his dead wife; the young girl laments about being married off, and in one comical scene, the young boy sings about the farce—or art—of peeing callously.  

These songs are striking, not just for their evocative lyrics, but their ethnographic qualities.  A critic from the West may see Chen’s work as exotic and unfamiliar, but as a Chinese (albeit a Singaporean Chinese), Yellow Earth strikes me as alien and foreign too.  It would be a cultural discovery for most audiences, perhaps even for some Mainland Chinese folks as well.  

Melodramatic at times, one could see Chen’s work as a call for personal agency and gender liberation, with its core thematic tension between widening perspectives and narrow mindsets functioning as a stable binary to which the drama is structured upon.  In this regard, Yellow Earth is a film about (the need to) progress as a nation, as a community, as a person, though ironically it attracted controversy (in China) for being too placid in its depiction of the Communist revolution’s role in improving the lives of peasants.  

Visually resplendent it may be, Yellow Earth ultimately trips up with its weak denouement—the rain-dance sequence—which brings audiences away from the film’s emotional center.  Still, one cannot deny the royal status of this world cinema classic; it is a breakthrough film in every sense of the word.  Chen would go on to make a range of films (his later works the less said the better), including what remains to be his greatest achievement, Farewell My Concubine (1993).   

Verdict:  A visually resplendent debut feature by Chen Kaige, but slightly marred by a weak denouement.  

GRADE: A-






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