Doctor Sung forced to clean the toilet under “people’s supervision”

Sung’s outburst of indignation at father’s humiliation

The state’s murder of the father

Sung raising the question of “justice” under the proletarian dictatorship

The uppity Lam on campus

Sung asking Lam to buy nylon stockings from Hong Kong

Wedding photo

The woman cadre’s dismissal of ”bourgeois” love

Waltzing in private

Dancing to American Boogie-Woogie in secret

Bicycling in the sunshine

Soldiers training

An intimidating gaze from the Colonel

Discussion of kissing as “unhealthy” in the wedding night


Popular discourses about the monstrosities of the Chinese regime were enhanced by the publication of various insiders’ autobiographical accounts since the 1980s. Compared to Eileen Chang’s fictional construction of peasants’ victimization in the 1950s, these writers’ first-hand experiences of suffering in Maoist China and regeneration in the West were promoted in the western market as “real-life” sagas of the Chinese families. The claim of “truthfulness” in these narratives, according to Peter Zarrow, was subject to certain limiting conditions: “the vagaries of memory,” “the difficulty the narrating self has in reposing the consciousness of the experiencing self,” “the structures of autobiographical narrative” and “Cold War ideology” (Zarrow, 1999: 186). Zarrow’s critical understanding here reveals how these Chinese memoirs emphasize suffering under Oriental despotism and thus provide familiar tropes for westerners to understand China.

Example of the 1980s and 90s memoirs include the following. One, Nien Cheng’s Life and Death in Shanghai (1987), stayed on The New York Times bestseller’s list for 13 weeks and was selected by many newspapers all over the United States as one of the best books for 1987. Written by a survivor of the Cultural Revolution now residing in the United States, Life and Death in Shanghai struck a sympathetic chord among a large portion of American readers. If mentioning her education in London and work experiences in Shell Oil in a first-person narration rendered the Chinese woman more “recognizable” to western public, her narrative of suffering in China fed a sense of superiority in American audiences, who might celebrate their own good “luck” to reside in the “free world.” The book’s compelling accounts of how the Red Guards accused Cheng of being a British spy and looted her home, and how she struggled for dignity during seven years of solitary confinement, verified U.S. popular belief in the repressive Communist regime. Additionally, inspired by Christianity—which allowed her “to see the distant green hills on the horizon”—Cheng found a new life in the United States (Cheng, 1987: 539).

Nien Cheng’s book’s phenomenal success boosted a wave of autobiographical accounts with Jung Chang’s Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China (1991) as the apex of the fad. Winning the 1992 NCR Book Award and the 1993 British Book of the Year, the book recorded Chang’s infatuation with Maoism, her parents’ ordeal in Cultural Revolution and her suffering undergoing ideological exorcism. The “authenticity” of her life accounts was enhanced by reprinting old family photographs as visual evidence of the tumultuous political reality of Maoist China. Her description of suffering ended in 1978 when Chang went abroad and breathed the air of freedom in England, “a just place” where she “had nothing to worry about” (Chang, 2003: 14). The recurrent paradigm of leaving China and finding spiritual solace in the West in these memoirs echoed the redemption narrative of the Cold War and appealed to the Anglophone readers, particularly at the time of global decline of Communism.

Such eyewitness accounts of Chinese turmoil further found cinematic expression in a number of independent films. For example, the award-winning Niu-Peng / China: My Sorrow (1989) about a 13-year-old boy being arrested for playing a Western record during the Cultural Revolution captured New York audiences. A personal narrative of suffering seen as a test of faith in God was the theme of the TBN production, China Cry, which I am discussing here. Although not a commercially viable project in the conventional sense, the film was able to secure its $7 million budget mainly from Christian donations. Through a promotion package of well-made TV promotions, slick posters and brochures, the film was released to more than 200 theaters in 23 cities throughout the United States. Backers of the film then took a 12-minute segment of the picture to the Cannes Film Festival in 1990 in an attempt to reach a worldwide audience (Pinsky, 1990), yet the film was circulated and consumed mainly within the protestant evangelical community. To the conservative-minded film critic Michael Medved, China Cry upheld “traditional values” of the United States and achieved “impressive success” as a “pioneering production” in film evangelism (1992: 334). Attorney and Christian talkshow host, John Stewart, on the other hand, dismissed the film as a “China Lie” for its unsubstantial claims of Christian miracles and refused to endorse it (Alnor, 1991). For its controversial presentation of personal memories and China’s public national history, the film provides an interesting site to examine how Cold War ideology continues to shape the redemption narrative and the public reception of the film in the post-Cold War era. 

To rescue the woman from Maoist China 

China Cry’s script reveals how disparate source materials get condensed, reduced, and left out in order to shape the film ideologically to contain the Chinese woman’s life experiences within the well-reiterated redemption narrative. Nora Lam’s original memoir chronicles the 60-year life trajectory of Sung Neng Yee (later known as Nora Lam in the United States) in Mainland China, Hong Kong and the United States. Taking only a small part of that history, the film chooses to capture her suffering in China as the most “filmable” segment. Starting with a brief war prelude showing the Japanese invasion of Shanghai in 1941 and ending with Sung’s miraculous escape from China in 1958, the film narrative concentrates on her gradual disillusionment with Maoism and eventual acknowledgement of God amidst the escalating political frenzy in the 1950s. To emphasize Sung’s victimization in China, the film narrative omits the book’s accounts of her refugee experience during the Japanese invasion, the family abuse she suffered and divorce in Hong Kong, her immigration to the United States, and her setting up of the Nora Lam Ministries and worldwide evangelistic crusades, etc. Since the description of these family anecdotes and individual accomplishments outside China tend to dilute the central motif, the film adaptation leaves these accounts out and provides the western audiences with a familiar narrative paradigm of escape to freedom. To condense Sung’s 60-year-long experiences into a 101-minute-long feature film with sentimental music, melodramatic events and sensuous cinematography, the filmmakers lump together Chinese social customs, political campaigns and historical events to foreground the woman’s individual triumph. Some inaccuracies of historical and geographical facts, such as a non-existent desert between China and Hong Kong and a four-year “delay” of the Japanese invading Shanghai, which actually took place in 1937, contradict the film’s claim to tell a “true” story. Nonetheless, to the majority of western audiences not so familiar with China, the film rings true enough particularly through the voice-over narration of the victim-exile-immigrant Sung.

The personal accounts of a traumatic Chinese past are constantly haunted in the film by the split between the narrating self and experiencing self. At the very beginning of the film, the opening title card reads, “[T]he following events are true...taken from the life of Sung Neng Yee who became Nora Lam” and the voiceover claims, “My name is Sung Neng Yee. This is my story.” To a certain degree this opening sets up the historical, spatial and cultural distance and difference between the U.S. evangelist Nora Lam and the youthful Sung Neng Yee living in Maoist China. Commanded by a dissident who looks back at her Chinese past with mixed feelings of bitterness, amber-tainted nostalgia and relief, the forthcoming film narrative of suffering, persecution and redemption in China promises to be re-contextualized by a critical Western perspective. Certain discrepancies in the narrative suggest the Chinese woman’s bifurcated class and cultural identities—such as the camera’s lingering gaze on a Shirley Temple doll in the opening shot, the subsequent mise en scène that emphasizes Sung’s western style upbringing in metropolitan Shanghai, Sung’s support for Chinese communists since “they’ve returned our country to us,” and her determination to be “a big potato for the Communists.” The western-oriented narrative self seems to negate the innocent, pro-Maoist experiencing self. Thus the authorial voice is “necessarily split”—posing “both as omniscient and simultaneously as engaged in a search for the self” (Zarrow, 1999: 174). To create empathy in the intended western audiences, the film narrative manages to instill the ideals of freedom and individualism into Sung although she is uncritical of her social system at the beginning and subject to the political frenzy beyond her control. The tension between the narrator’s two selves in the film narrative manifests this kind of memoir’s ambiguous maneuvering to package the Chinese woman’s autobiographical accounts for western consumption.

Building on audience expectations of Chinese savagery, the presentation of Maoist frenzy in the film constitutes a cinematic specimen of contemporary chinoserie of revolutionary orgy. According to the film director James F. Collier, the film crew “chase history” by scouting Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macao for sites in which to recreate 1949-1958 Shanghai. To represent political manipulation in 1950s China, the film builds up a visual and audio track of uniformed soldiers, blue-clad civilians, political posters and bullhorns condemning class enemies. Frequent shots of Mao portraits allude to the omnipresent gaze of the Orwellian “Big Brother,” and the monotone of national political discourse, with its daily vocabulary about “bad elements,” indicates a threatening surge of revolutionary zeal. For instance, in a scene when Sung is riding a bicycle across a street, a point of view shot captures how the angry mob loot a church, burn bibles, and humiliate priests and nuns by denouncing how churches promotes “counter-revolutionary superstition under the guise of religion.” Such a presentation of Christian persecution enhances western audiences’ resentment toward the atheist Chinese regime, as the narrative adopts western discursive frameworks of freedom and justice to condemn revolutionary violence in China, which nonetheless is shown as appealing to the Chinese people in a web of patriotic passion in history.

The film further offers seductive episodes of sex and violence with a tantalizing structure of voyeurism built into them. For example, the film has such scenes which serve no discernible narrative function: e.g., a bloody martial arts sequence involving the villainous colonel; scenes showing the government’s radical transformation of prostitutes in the Red Light district; and Sung’s sexual molestation at the hands of a communist soldier. To foreground Sung’s suffering in China, the narrative reduces China’s public history to an eerie background and titillates the western fancy for oriental exoticism. The film’s producers and scriptwriters assume that only against this political scenario does Sung’s story become meaningful to the West. In other words, Sung remains interesting insofar as she suffers in Communist China but she loses her magic as a career woman in the United States. In terms of her interest as a cinematic character, the Chinese woman is henceforth fastened in her conventional status as native informant, victimized exile and political dissident.

The cinematic adaptation thus has a relevance for film and cultural studies in that it demonstrates a particular ideological valence effective in maintaining popular sentiment against the CCP regime. The presentation of Sung’s victimization and her triumph over the communist regime in the film applauds God’s power and how it can preserve the believer’s humanity inside an otherwise fanatic China. At this point, I would like to analyze the film in closer detail to explore the relation between cinematic and ideological construction, that is, how condemnation of China and solidification of Western superiority are enacted in the film’s narrative structure and cinematic language.

The opening title card states that the story happens “a decade before China’s Great Cultural Revolution and some thirty years before the bloody history of Tiananmen Square.” The title compresses in this way two historical events that have no direct relevance to the plotline; its function is to embed the forthcoming narrative within the larger social framework of condemnation. The story will be like a case study, so that the depiction of the Sung family trapped in this political vortex becomes emblematic of the Chinese people’s enslavement in this draconian state. The film depicts how the Sung family becomes the target of political storms launched by the reigning communists who define themselves as representatives of the impoverished city proletariats and rural farmers; the then-reigning communists might describe this family as members of the “culturally colonized native elites” in the semi-colonial Shanghai and remnants of the former “exploiting classes” with foreign connections (Shih, 2001: 275). In the way that the film presents this historical moment, a crane shot of the Sung family forced to leave their home by rifle-carrying communist soldiers recalls the pre-credit sequence of Japanese invaders. The cinematic language of visual and music cues suggests the similarity between the communists and the Japanese with a sense of wry irony. In contrast to an earlier scene in which Sung in a political parade chants the greatness of Chairman Mao for teaching the Chinese “to stand up to the world,” her youthful idealism fades when her family faces intensifying persecution. Sung’s disillusionment with the new regime is aggravated by the humiliation inflicted on her father, a Western-educated doctor forced to clean the toilet. When the father is forced be a test subject for experimental drugs and dies from overbleeding—a change from the memoir’s account of his natural death—Sung starts to question political indoctrination by the proletarian dictatorship and express concerns about state violence against civilians. Depicted as noble refugees in their unworthy homeland, the Sung family invites the audience’s sympathy, especially when memories of the Tian’anmen tragedy are still fresh in world consciousness.

The film also appeals to a western audience, one accustomed to a consumer society, by dramatizing the young Sung’s yearning for feminine beauty. Her penchant for lipstick and stockings poses a challenge to the 1950s Maoist gender discourse. As the state called upon women to exercise economic, political and physical rights as men’s equals, Chinese women were treated primarily as a revolutionary force and a productive power for the construction of the nation-state. Ideologically cosmetics and fashion were often linked to bourgeois self-indulgence and renounced as a capitalist crime against females. Visually, the much-propagated “model woman” in China’s official discourse was often a blue-clad machinist or tractor driver with rosy cheeks. In the visual culture that surrounded Sung, the muted color scheme of “Chinese puritan communism” and lack of capitalist consumption demonstrated the interplay between socialist citizenship, the politics of national building and gender formation (Chen, 2001). In deliberate ideological and visual contrast, the film, on the other hand, suggests that women’s love of fashion is an irrepressible part of femininity despite the massive campaign to purge any “bourgeois” lifestyle in China. For instance, Sung falls in love with the uppity Lam whose proclivity for dressing in western clothes makes himself an outstanding figure among a hive of blue Mao suits. In that vein, Sung asks Lam to buy nylon stockings from Hong Kong as a first step in their courtship. Shortly after that, in the scene of taking wedding photos, a hastily found bridal hairpiece adds flair and romance to the otherwise solemn-looking couple.

The film presents Sung’s tortured romance in terms of individual rebellion against a repressive state. Compared with the matter-of-fact description of her marriage in the memoir, the film accentuates the romance as an affective political moment in defiance of the state. Though a woman cadre dismisses love as a vulgar “bourgeois conceit” in face of the great revolutionary cause, Sung treasures romance despite her avowed commitment to the socialist project. In the spiritual wasteland of ideological censorship and political mandates, the couple listens to Chopin’s piano sonata and dances to the beat of American Boogie-Woogie in secret. Yet such spontaneous joy is bound to be transitory as a shot of the laughing couple bicycling in the sunshine is followed by a reverse shot of macho soldiers at their morning exercises. Since the image of the fist-waving fanatics occupies the central frame, an intimidating look from the villainous Colonel seems to fix the lovers in their marginality. The state’s erosion of Sung’s emotional life is further demonstrated by the wedding night scene in which Lam quotes from the newspaper that kissing is “in questionable taste” and “possibly unhealthy” in the new China. The joking dichotomy between “positive” proletarian sentiments and “negative” bourgeois lifestyles interrupts the intimacy and casts an ominous shadow upon the young couple.

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