by Da Huo'er
Cut, no. 34, March, 1989, pp. 107-109
In 1981 Xie Jin was hailed as the Wajda of China in Turin, Italy, at the largest Chinese film retrospective ever organized in the West. Four years later, his films at last found their way to North America. In 1985, a retrospective of ten of Xie's twenty-odd films made in the past 32 years finally toured the United States.
Born in Shaoxing in 1923, Xie Jin grew up during World War II, when Japan invaded China. In his late teens he went to Jiang-an School of Dramatic Arts in Szechuan, studying under the prominent playwrights, Cao Yu and Hong Shen, and reading Ibsen, Shakespeare and Chekov. He had his first industry job in the Datong Studio shortly before the Liberation in 1949, after which he went to Shanghai and made his directorial debut in 1953 with A WAVE OF UNREST.His first popular success was WOMAN BASKETBALL PLAYER #5 (1957), acclaimed both at home and in Moscow. He continued to display his interest in women protagonists in THE RED DETACHMENT OF WOMEN (1960), one of the films commissioned to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic: (This film is not to be confused with Jiang Qing's model opera of the same name.) TWO STAGE SISTERS (1964), criticized severely during the Cultural Revolution, received critical acclaim when shown in Britain in 1980 and has been shown on British television numerous times since then.During the Cultural Revolution, Xie Jin was ostracized and thrown into a "Monsters and Ghost Pen," a punishment given to many of Xie's generation. Rehabilitated within five years, he resumed his filmmaking. Yet still THE LEGEND OF TIANYUN MOUNTAIN (1981) and THE HERDSMAN (1982) aroused widespread controversy. Both films dealt with people's experience of political purges. Xie's humanistic, affirmative outlook as well as his strong commitment to China's cultural identity have caused some European critics to liken him to Wajda.After his very successful WREATHS AT THE FOOT OF THE MOUNTAIN (1984), a patriotic film on Chinese army life set during the Sino-Vietnamese war of 1979, Xie has gone on to adapt the novel A Small Town Called Hibiscus by Gu Hua about rural life during the 1960s and 1970s.
The following interview is edited from a few conversations I had with Xie Jin in New York during his recent visit.
DH: You started your directorial career right after the Liberation. In the past three decades, you have gone through major political phases, including the Anti-Rightist campaign, the Great Leap Forward of the late 50s, the Cultural Revolution of the 60s, now the post-Gang-of-Four era. How have these events, particularly the Cultural Revolution, affected your films?
XJ: During the Cultural Revolution, BIG LI, YOUNG LI AND OLD LI [1962, a film dealing with mass sports activities in a meat processing factory] was condemned for "vulgarizing and caricaturing the working class." It is the only comedy I've made. In general comedies came under heavy attack during the Cultural Revolution. To begin with, I don't particularly enjoy directing comedies. And in those days it was difficult to handle comedies, to achieve the right political balance in them. Say, you want to criticize the bureaucrats. If you go too far, you'll run into trouble; if you're too reserved, you defeat your own purpose.
And in the middle of filming TWO STAGE SISTERS [1964, a melodrama of the lives of two opera actresses from rags to stardom, and who eventually took separate paths in Japanese-occupied Shanghai], criticisms began. I was forced to change the script. Today I admit that the first part of TWO STAGE SISTERS seems more or less well done, but the second part seems weak to me. I couldn't finish it the way I would have liked. If I could redo the second part now, it would improve the entire film.
When THE LEGEND OF TIANYUN MOUNTAIN [a film of a woman's heartbreaking battle against the bureaucracy during a "Rightist Purge" for her ex-lover whom she once betrayed] came out in 1981, it stirred a stormy controversy, centering on the vindication of "rightists." While being criticized, I received thousands of letters thanking me for reflecting these people's suffering during the Anti-Rightist campaign. Some of the letters literally moved me to tears. However, the film TIANYUN MOUNTAIN did not give me further trouble. Personally, except under the regime of the Gang of Four, I have had liberty to initiate my own ideas.
DH: Who has influenced your work?
Xi: Naturally, Chinese films of the 30s, those that I saw when I was little. Cai Chusheng, Sun Yu, Shen Xiling all became my favorite directors. But then I found other sources from outside the cinema as well-classical literature and traditional operas. I was impressed by the precise and vivid storytelling of Pingtan [storytelling and ballad singing in Suzhou dialect] and the finesse in how Szechuan and Shaoxing operas treated characters. [Both are local opera forms named after their providences; Szechuen opera is known for its chorus and clown lead characters while Shaoxing opera is known for its traditionally all-female cast and dazzling costumes.]
DH: How about foreign filmmakers?
Xi: U.S. cinema had exerted an important influence on Chinese cinema of the 30s. In fact, most of the foreign films released at that time were U.S. movies. The American directors I admire most are John Ford and Mervyn LeRoy. Ford uses spectacular staging, and LeRoy's depiction of characters interests me very much.
However, the strongest influence on the generation of directors that came upon the scene after the Liberation is no doubt Soviet cinema. Among the Soviets, I admire Mikhail Romm, Sergi Gerassimov, Yuli Raizman, Grigori Chukhrai and Sergei Eisenstein. All of Romm's films, from the silent ones to NINE DAYS OF THE YEAR , are my favorites. I consider him one of my masters. My creativity becomes nourished from his works, which are so profound and so alive. Eisenstein is, of course, important to any one interested in cinema. However, his theory of montage has not had a major impact on us. I am quite surprised that the students of cinema in the U.S. know so much about Eisenstein but not about the other Soviet directors who have carried forward Russia's great cultural heritage. Soviet cinema has a profound moral seriousness and depth.
But let's not forget Italian cinema. I personally have seen THE BICYCLE THIEF and ROME ELEVEN O'CLOCK some seventy times during the dubbing and printing of the Chinese versions.
DH: Western theater made an important contribution to the development of Chinese film aesthetics in the 1920s and 1930s. People like Mei Lan-fang, the famous Peking opera female-impersonator, were very interested in Western dramatic theory and, in turn, theorists like Brecht and Eisenstein were influenced by Mei and traditional Chinese opera forms. How popular are Stanislavski and Brecht in China now?
Xi: Most of Stanislavski's writings were translated during the 40s and we studied him in the 50s. By comparison, Brecht has had less influence. Both Brecht and Stanislavski were denounced during the Cultural Revolution. Now we teach them in the curriculum of drama and film studies in China.
DH: Overseas Chinese intellectuals often believe that the 30s and the 40s remain the Golden Age of Chinese cinema. How would you comment on that?
Xi: I don't think that's very accurate. I'm afraid I have to disagree. The artistic merit of Chinese cinema from the 30s and 40s is obvious. But I think we have had more than just two good decades. Our country made a number of very good movies to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Liberation. [To cite a few, THE LIN FAMILY SHOP (Shui Hua), THE SONG OF YOUTH (Cui Wei) and THE RED DETACHMENT OF WOMEN (Xie Jin).] Had we develped from there, instead of being disrupted for the past twenty years, we could have come to a point of tremendous distinction. As it is, we have to pick up from where we were. Hopefully we are heading for a new era.
DH: Many people wonder why the movies made in 1960 to celebrate the tenth anniversary of The Liberation reveal such a burst of creativity and artistic freedom, when only two years before, the Anti-Rightist campaign came down so heavily on intellectuals?
XJ: Yes. However, the better commemoration films were all historical dramas set in the pre-liberation days. Don't be mistaken that these films attempted to read the present into the past. There were also films dealing with issues about peasants and the working class. But artistically those were not very successful.
DH: There are many memorable portrayals of women in your films. Song Wei and Feng Qinglan in TIANYUN MOUNTAIN, Chunhua and Yuehong in TWO STAGE SISTERS, and Li Xiuzhi in THE HERDSMAN, are those that immediately come to mind. Would you say that you are more concerned with the fate of women in modern China?
Xi: To begin with, in the scripts I often find my female characters better portrayed than the male ones. And naturally this has something to do with my interests, and choices. My childhood memory remains full of oppressed, victimized women. Under feudal oppression, the suffering of men could not be compared to that of women. To say the least, a man was allowed to keep several wives, while a widow was never permitted to marry again. It would bring too much shame on her family. I had a grandaunt whose husband died when she was barely 19 years old. She was told to adopt an in-law's child as her son. After that she had nothing to expect from life any more. What could she do in a widowhood that was going to last for 60 years? What could she do with her desires and natural needs? Every night she helped herself to sleep by counting a string of coins like a rosary. Gradually the engraving on the coins was worn off. The whole string became bright, polished, shiny. It was one of my saddest memories.
DH: What obstacles are faced by Chinese filmmakers?
Xi: The big problem is, as in the rest of the world, our great demand for good scripts. A number of good Chinese films have adaptated literary works. I myself have adapted quite a few novels — THE LEGEND OF TIANYUN MOUNTAIN, THE HERDSMAN and THE WREATHS AT THE FOOT OF THE MOUNTAIN. Quite different from in the rest of the world, a screenwriter in China today is more respected than a director. In terms of payment, a screenwriter always gets more. There is a kind of imbalance here and I think something needs to be done.
DH: You joined the Party recently. Does your present Party status affect you artistically and politically as compared to your non-Party-member days?
Xi: If trouble comes, it comes, regardless of your political status. I have always only wanted to do my job. Having gone through various political crises, I've become more adamant about what I have to do and say. Often people complain that we've wasted too many years during the Cultural Revolution and made too many mistakes. But what's done cannot be undone, and it's not just one person's suffering that we're talking about. In my own films, I've tried to instill some optimism into our people — it's like what the protagonist in THE HERDSMAN says, "A son will not be put off by his mother's unkempt look." Let's review our past and face up to it.
DH: Now a new generation of post-Cultural Revolution directors are emerging from China. Recently Chen Keige's YELLOW EARTH (1984) and Tian Zhuongzhuang's ON THE HUNTING GROUND (1984) have been a sensation among Hong Kong and European critics. What's your opinion of them?
Xi: This new generation of filmmakers seems more open to new ideas. I hope they'll explore their own vision, work out good scripts, and not alienate the masses. Clearly they form a burgeoning force in Chinese cinema.
1951 THE DENUNCIATION (KONG SU)