Sung’s friends at the “struggle meeting”
Sung to solitary confinement
Sung’s first encounter with Christianity as a teenager
Sung being slapped by the cadre
Sung enslaved in a labor camp
Writing to the authorities during a lunch break
Sung drawing a cross on the chalkboard
Colonel handing Sung the exit permit
“To do that…you have to imprison the wind.”
Getting away from the China border gate
Crawling through a desert
The film develops the gradual erosion of Sung’s marriage as an example of the negative impact of the political fervor upon family ties in China in the 1950s. Successive waves of ideological campaigns, such as Suppression of Counter-revolutionaries Campaign, Elimination of Counter-revolutionaries Campaign, and Anti-Rightist Campaign, treated those belonging to the “wrong” class as second-class citizens. To eliminate potential “threats” to the socialist project, the state called upon the victims’ friends and family members to make denunciation speeches against them so as to break pmublicly with them as “bad” elements (Jones, 1962: 65-66). People were often encouraged to make “heroic” choices between private feelings and public duty to demonstrate their dedication to Communism. The film represents such alienation of interpersonal relationships in an episode of a “struggle meeting,” in which Sung’s friend reports to the authority about her attending missionary schools and marrying a rich man with Hong Kong connections. Fro then on, the couple is deemed suspicious and subjected to interrogations by Communist officials. When Sung and her husband are detained separately and forced to recall details of their courtship, Lam stops communicating with Sung for “they compare our stories.” As revolutionary fervor goes awry, turning into random purges, Lam has to attend daily self-denunciation meeting where he is beaten to exact a confession that he was a foreign spy. Ceaseless mental and physical tortures plunge Lam into despair as he shudders at the idea of his child growing up in an absurd world of coercion and conspiracy.
As the Colonel tells him that his wife has confessed that he spies for foreign governments, Lam grabs Sung and yells at her out of hurt and anger. A close-up shot of the tearful couple is then followed by a reverse low-angle shot of the Colonel with a malicious sneer. As the secret hand behind the state-warranted conspiracy, the Colonel pits Sung against her husband in an attempt to break their spirit and love. As the film delineates his zealous acclaim of the proletariat dictatorship, sadistic violence towards his subordinates and contempt of moral decency, the Colonel is constructed as the antithesis to Sung, a cosmopolitan bourgeois with some Christian background. When a pregnant Sung is dragged away from her teaching lectern and thrown into solitary confinement for having attended a Presbyterian school, the melodrama starts to give way to the Christian theme of redemption.
China Cry seems to focus on the melodramatic episodes with a lack of presentation about Christianity to the dissatisfaction of some devout U.S. audiences. For instance, a number of DVD customers complain about the film’s “non-biblical themes” and its minimal concerns “about the growth and spread of Christianity in China” at Amazon.com. [open endnotes in new window] Historically speaking, the perception of Christianity in China has often been intertwined with the nationalist discourse of anti-imperialism. The anti-Christian movement in China could be traced back to the outbreak of mass indignation against China’s degradation at the Versailles Treaty in the 1910s. For years, both the government and people of China had a widespread suspicion of foreign missionaries especially since various colonialist and imperialist pressure were exerted upon China often on behalf of the missionary enterprises. In addition, Western missionaries sometimes “took temporary or permanent service under their own government” by utilizing their familiarity with China and years of experience there (Jones, 1962: 56). To establish a nationalistic state freed of foreign exploitation and cultural invasion, since 1949 the CCP continued the anti-Christian campaign and took measures to bring all religions under supervision (Yip, 1980). The publication of the Christian Manifesto: Direction of Endeavor for Chinese Christianity in the Construction of New China in July 1950 launched a massive campaign to bring Christianity under control.
Distrust of Christianity as western-originated religion went deeper at the outbreak of Korean War (1950-1953) where the U.S. military was involved in a conflict with the Chinese People’s Liberation Army. The Chinese government charged the Christian missionary movement as the puppet of imperialism and singled out the United States as the main offender in this respect (Jones, 1962: 55). As China utilized the anti-imperialist discourse of the Korean War for mass campaigns to hunt for alleged or real enemy agents, those who had contacts with foreign firms or church organizations were especially subject to persecution. Despite the 1954 declaration of freedom of religious belief in the first Chinese Constitution, in real-life the persecution of Christian believers was rampant. Drastic measures included confiscation of churches and Buddhist temples, and scrutiny of all pastors, churchgoers and monks. Subject to expulsion, imprisonment or execution, a large portion of Christian believers were forcibly re-educated by working among farmers or detained in labor camps.
Such an historical contextulization of Christianity in China is not mentioned in the filmic narrative of religious persecution and redemption. Faithful to its Christian-oriented production, China Cry features the motif of Christians triumphing over the atheist Communist regime, especially towards the latter half of the narrative. As Sung is imprisoned to purge the influences of Christianity, the biblical theme moves to the foreground. For example, as Sung is forced to write autobiographical essays to confess her “complicity” with imperial infiltration, a flashback scene depicts young girls at the missionary school laughing and playing in the sunshine; here the voiceover narration states, “It began like a tiny seed planted in my spirit.” The visual images of the white-clad girls, the benevolent pastors and the serene atmosphere in the church symbolize the character’s nostalgic longing to escape the present political frenzy. Accentuated by the soundtrack of screams, cries and gunshots, scenes of the pregnant Sung being forbidden to drink, slapped by the woman cadre and enslaved in a barren labor camp dramatize the cruelties of the regime. Claiming herself as a Maoist believer with just slight involvement with Christianity as a teenager, Sung nonetheless changes her mind after rounds and rounds of torture. Despite China’s official indoctrination about the doom of Western ideology and her re-production of such knowledge when she was in college, Sung now draws a cross on the chalkboard.
In the empty hall dominated by the gargantuan portrait of Mao and the glaring Five Star Red Flag, China’s national symbol, the battered woman gazes at the white cross and listens to the voice of God in the wind blowing through the window. In a moment of “transformation,” Sung responds to God’s call, asks for forgiveness for denouncing Him so long and identifies herself as a Christian. As stated by the theme song “No One But You,” God “openes” her soul, “gives” her life and “shows” her her real identity. Ironically, the communist ideological thought reform has had a counter-effect: to turn her flickering interest in Christianity into a firm belief. In another sequence, one depicting underground church activities, a bespectacled pastor preaches to a small congregation from all walks of life, the fellow believers read scriptures from Bible and sing praise to God, while the lyric of Hallelujah in the soundtrack creates a sense of peace and hope. Moved by this holy atmosphere, Sung kneels down and repents with tears. Multiple scenes of the woman’s unyielding belief in God create an aura like a “biblical epic” except the film is set in the 20th century and the villains are Communist zealots instead of Romans (Holden, 1991).
Sung’s conversion to Christianity in the film bespeaks a significant precondition to her ending her suffering in China and realizing her final redemption in the West. By re-examining her life through a newly acquired Christian lens, Sung overcomes her nationalistic illusions, breaks free from Communist ideological shackles, and towers over the communist cadres in the spirit of a Christian martyr. Renouncing Maoism in favor of God, Sung survives hardships that are presented as analogous to ritualistic trials to test her faith in God. When the 9-month pregnant woman recovers from a kidney infection and insists that God has promised that the baby would be born “somewhere free” outside China, her mother is awed by Sung’s saintly vision. Her call for salvation is answered by a chain of miracles, which prompts a devout viewer at Amazon.com to admit “some of her story strains credulity.”
A controversial episode, both in the book and film, comes when Sung refuses to denounce Christ and is dragged before a nighttime firing squad. In a courtyard suddenly bathed in an otherworldly light, the camera cuts back and forth between the team of soldiers and the woman who is praying to God in silence. In this prolonged moment of intensity, a lightening bolt from heaven cowers the firing squad and Sung is miraculously spared from bullets. The subsequent miraculous claims, including her husband and daughter being released to Hong Kong and her extended pregnancy as God’s promise for the baby to be born outside China, help quicken the pace of the narrative as Sung finally obtains her exit permit to Hong Kong. The over-corporeal representation of God’s power, on the other hand, runs the risk of mythologizing Christian miracles as manifested for personal gains and catering to fundamentalist beliefs in a contemporary context. As a result some Christian groups in the United States have questioned the movie’s “truthfulness,” as seen in the Christian Research Journal, and have refused to endorse the film (Alnor, 1991). For those who admire the film, refuting what critics see as provocative and opportunistic presentations of God’s power, these viewers instead say these moments of the plot enflame a Christian viewer’s religious loyalty and condemn the atheist Chinese regime.
The film consolidates its depiction of the redeeming power of Christianity over atheistic communism in China by featuring Sung’s successful pursuit of freedom. From the chaotic world of ideological fanaticism and bureaucratic labyrinths in China, Sung emerges as a firm believer of God. Her indefatigable spirit, graceful dignity and commitment to her husband somehow win the respect of the dogmatic Colonel as he wishes her “safe journey” when handing her the exit permit. At this point the cinematography puts the two sitting side by side as implied equals, and here Sung confronts the Colonel’s dismissal of Christianity saying that to succeed he would have to “imprison the wind.” The film concludes with Sung and her son crossing an iron-wired border gate, running away from the ominous Five Star Red Flag, crawling through a non-existent desert between China and Hong Kong, and being re-united with her husband in freedom. The fictionalized geographical wilderness is contrived to situate Sung’s suffering in the mythical discourse of a biblical journey. Accentuated by the grandiose “Freedom Symphony” in the soundtrack, the woman’s escape from China is represented as the Oriental/female version of the Exodus. As the film concludes with a hackneyed Hollywood ending of the couple living in the Western “free world” happily thereafter, the audiences become reassured that a loving God will triumph over the atheistic communism in China. The film thus refurbishes the superiority of American way of life by reminding the audiences to be grateful for not suffering such excruciating persecution in China. Indeed on amazon.com one viewer vows to do more for the work of Christ after seeing the film for he/she cannot help “feeling guilty about how cushy and easy my life is in the USA.”
The all-too-perfect story of one Chinese woman’s self-realization in the film and memoir has also invited suspicion from the public in the United States. Some Christian groups raise questions about the film based on various controversies surrounding Nora Lam’s ministry and character (Alnor, 1991). If Sung-Lam is constructed as a freedom fighter and a devoted wife in China and later as a committed evangelist in the United States in the film and book, such a claim of moral righteousness is contradicted by disputes about the real-life figure of Nora Lam. For instance, the memoir describes how Lam moves to the United States and remarries after divorcing her husband in Hong Kong, but Paul Kauffman, Lam’s pastor in Hong Kong at the time, testified that she “ran away with an elder in my congregation” who left his wife behind. The description of her evangelistic career in the memoir does not mention that the Assemblies of God refused to endorse the Nora Lam Ministries in 1977 and that the National Association of Evangelicals turned down Lam’s ministry application for membership in 1989 because of allegations about her involvement in a pattern of fund-raising improprieties. The tactful avoidance of ethical issues and the selective use of memories in the film and memoir tend to situate the woman’s migration to the United States within the conventional paradigm of escape to freedom, rather than depicting her as seeking personal advantages in the West.
The “mismatch” between the real-life figure and the artistic glorification of Sung-Lam unveils a conservative ideological propensity to fasten the Chinese woman in the stereotypical role of noble victim, political exile, and assimilated Christian. To deflect audiences’ consideration away from those inconvenient real-life “distractions” about Sung-Lam, the narrative is obliged to sanitize and singularize her experiences at the expense of constructing a more sophisticated other woman. In this sense, the cinematic character of Sung is projected as a “scheme” rather than a “person” to celebrate God’s omnipotence even in a foreign land. The monolithic projection of Sung in the film, as well as the monotonous vilification of a horrible China, reinforces the ideological demarcation between a civilized American self and a fanatic Chinese other. Probably due to its politically manipulative ploy and exploitation of the audiences’ religious loyalties, China Cry is largely forgotten by the public and survives only within the Protestant evangelical community in the United States.
The suffering-triumph-freedom structure in China Cry coheres with the redemption narrative of the Cold War era and exemplifies the deep-rooted U.S. thinking about the need to rescue the Chinese. The description of Sung’s victimization in Maoist China, conversion to Christianity, and empowerment through spiritual transformation purports to demonstrate the superiority of the American way of life and enhance the western moral righteousness against the uncivilized eastern other. Since China’s reengagement with global capitalism does not cause a weakening of the power of the nation-state and thus poses a potential challenge to the U.S.-dominated world system in the early 1990s, the filmic narrative of Sung’s cultural assimilation serves to assuage a collective Western anxiety to some extent, especially among the religious audiences. Promoted under the category of “Stories of the Persecuted Church” as it is distributed at ChristianCinema.com, China Cry is able to stay alive in the context of religious persecution in the United States. (7335)