Arts freedom in China: a tale of two movies

The contrasting fates of two recent films illustrate the dilemma of China's communist leaders over how much they should tolerate freedom of expression. The Liberation Army Daily, organ of the armed services, has published a full-page blast against the film "Bitter Love," also known as "The Sun and Man." Almost simultaneously, another film, "The Legend of Tianyun Mountain," has been chosen by the Ministry of Culture as one of the eight best feature films of 1980 .

Both films go far beyond the usual stock criticism of the years of the Cultural Revolution and the rule of the "gang of four" headed by Mao Tse-tung's widow, Jiang Qing. Both films pose, though indirectly, the question of Mao's own responsibility for China's sufferings during the last 20 years of his life. (Chairman Mao died in September 1976 and the gang of four was overthrown one month later.)

But whereas "Bitter Love" is an angry, indeed bitter, film, ending in the death of an artist who feels betrayed by his own motherland, "Tianyun Mountain" ends on a note of hope, with the vindication of the hero and the complete discomfiture of the villain, a county-level Communist Party secretary.

This correspondent has not seen "Bitter Love," which has never been screened publicly, and must go by the descriptions of those who have, as well as the synopsis given in the Liberation Army Daily's commentary. (The commentary was reprinted in the Peking Daily, April 20.) "Bitter Love" was written by Bai Hua, an Army writer who was branded a rightist in 1957 and who, like many others so branded, was not rehabilitated until after the fall of the gang of four.

AT the writers' congress of November 1979, he electrified his colleagues with a speech demanding the unshackling of literary and artistic expression.

The film tells the story of an artist who suffered during the bad old pre-liberation days, emigrates to America, and enjoys success and renown. Like many fellow-intellectuals, he chooses to return to China after liberation. Then comes the Cultural Revolution. He is kicked, beaten, and finally escapes into the wilderness, where he lives like a wild man.

The film ends with people who have been searching for him coming upon him after he has already expired, having expended his final ounce of energy to trace in the snow "a question mark of unparalleled size." TThe bitterest moment in the film, the moment which symbolizes the entire film, comes when his daughter, having determined to flee the country, finds him opposed, and says, "You love this country of ours, you can't bear to part with her -- but does the country love you?" The word used for country is "guojia," meaning the state and presumably the entire apparatus of party and government rather than motherland.

Another much-talked-of moment comes when an old man and his grandson are visiting a Buddhist temple. "Grandfather," asks the child, "why is the image of the Buddha so black?" "Because of all the incense the worshippers burn," is the reply. The person who told me this story had herself been told it by someone who had seen the film. Without hearing any more, this person was instantly able to identify its meaning. The Buddha stood for Mao, blackened by the incense of all his worshippers.

The Liberation Army Daily commentator also obviously got the message, for he considers this one of the most offensive parts of the film. But Hua originally was said to have agreed to redo the film, cutting out the daughter's remark and the section about the Buddha.

But apparently it has made so many party stalwarts angry, particularly in the Army, that a decision has been made to hold the film up as an object lesson in how not to overstep the permissible bounds of criticism. By contrast "Tianyun Mountain" seems tame, although in its own way it is bold enough. The hero, a young scientist, is accused of being a rightist, and loses his girlfriend to a Communist Party cadre, who eventually becomes secretary of the local party.

Last, the party secretary is shown with no redeeming characteristic whatsoever, living in luxury and trying desperately to keep investigators from uncovering the facts of the situation.Eventually the hero is vindicated, after having lived 20 years of the most arduous poverty. The hero's wife, however, does not survive to see the day of triumph. What the party leadership seems to be trying to say is that within the guidelines they have set there remains considerable room for freedom of artistic expression.

And even Bai Hua is not being pilloried or imprisoned the way he would have been during the Cultural Revolution or the anti-rightist campaign. That may be small comfort to many intellectuals who are now buttoning up their Mao jackets against the cold winds sweeping out from party headquarters adjoining the forbidden city. But it does show the distance China has come since the fall of the gang of four.

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