Each in their own way, three new films set in North Korea, China and Russia deal with Communism and its aftermath. As an experiment that will mark, but probably not celebrate, its centennial anniversary in October 2017, it is only Cuba that seems to have some affinity with the very early years of the Russian Revolution when everything good seemed possible. Today, we can talk about 21st century socialism and take heart from the continuing determination of the Bolivarian Revolution to defend the interests of working people, but there are few signs that any nation on earth is about to undergo a socialist revolution. As films, the three under consideration in this review can hardly substitute for the kind of rigorous analysis that a Marxist scholar can put forward about why this is the case but for anybody who has either dreamed about or worked to realize an alternative to capitalism, the films deserve your consideration and in one case demand it.
Opening on September 18th at the Anthology Film Archives, “Songs from the North” is a deeply personal documentary by a female South Korean director Soon-Mi Yoo who was allowed to tour the North. Since she was refused permission to interview any North Koreans, you might ask yourself what is the value of the film. The answer is that it was not the typical “peek inside the mysterious totalitarian state” but a heartfelt attempt by someone obviously on the left to engage with a country that dared to break with the capitalist system.
In fact the most compelling moments of the film are not shot in the North but in her native country with her elderly father who describes himself as the kind of person who identified with a revolution against landlordism and colonialism when he was young and still does. In one of the most revealing exchanges between daughter and father, who was a law student in the 1950s, he describes how one of his comrades from the south who relocated to the north fell victim to a purge in the 1960s. Despite being an absolutely passionate revolutionary, the man was still charged with being a spy and executed.
The film is a mixture of the director’s interaction with North Koreans who are on pilgrimages to the tomb of Kim Il-Sung, performing exercises, and generally conforming to the stereotypes of Stalinist society, and her more intimate interactions with the people. She manages to get beneath the grotesque surface in an effort to put the ritualized social conventions into context. With so much of the world arrayed against the North, it might be expected that society would tend to reinforce defense mechanisms—including blind worship of the Leader.
Some of the more interesting moments occur when ordinary North Koreans, including hotel employees, appear bemused by the director’s interest in filming them. Rather than striking a defensive pose, they simply laugh at her eagerness to capture images they deem inconsequential like mopping a floor or pouring a drink. Since Yoo is a very skilled director, she extracts the “human interest” from these moments that another person behind the camera might fail to capture.
She also uses a good deal of stock footage from North Korean films and television that are very rarely seen in the West that in and of themselves would be of keen interest, at least to those people who are still trying to figure out their connection to the century-long experiment to create a society based on human need rather than private profit.
Opening at Lincoln Plaza Cinema on September 9th, “Coming Home” is a Zhang Yimou film that emphasizes the personal costs of the Cultural Revolution at the expense of offering political analysis of why it occurred. As part of the “fifth generation” of Chinese filmmakers that rose to prominence after the winding down of the Cultural Revolution, Zhang is probably the most acclaimed. Unlike the sixth generation that generally operates outside of the officially recognized institutions of the state, Zhang and his compatriots walk a fine line between social criticism and kowtowing to officialdom.
As an example of the former, “Not One Less” recounts the struggles of a young schoolteacher to fulfill her obligations to students in an impoverished village. But no doubt feeling the pressures of censors, he turned later toward costume dramas like “Hero” that I summed up in the final paragraph of my review as follows:
The story itself revolves around the plot of Jet Li and his associates to assassinate the King of Qin, who has decided to subjugate the five other kingdoms in ancient China in order to create a unified state and a unified language. The assassins all come from a kingdom that has suffered from his assaults. Ultimately, “Hero” becomes a Rashomon-type tale in which the King of Qin and his enemies present contrasting accounts of both their involvement and his culpability. I don’t think I am giving away anything when I say that the King is ultimately vindicated as a national unifier in the mold of Stalin or Mao. One must conclude that Chinese filmmakers operate under tremendous constraints.
Since many Chinese regard the current president as returning to Maoist principles, excluding, of course, the “Iron Rice Bowl” provisions that made Mao such a beloved figure in some ways, “Coming Home” might have been expected to stay within ideological norms. While certainly not a film that will offend the censors, let alone result in the director serving a prison term, it is a powerful examination of the suffering a husband, wife and teenage daughter endured as victims of the Cultural Revolution, a project that people from my political tradition always considered a bureaucratic maneuver to silence Mao’s ideological opponents.
The film begins on a rainy night during the height of the Cultural Revolution when political prisoner and one-time college professor Lu Yanshi (Chen Daoming) has returned to the building where his wife Feng (Gong Li) and daughter Dan-Dan (Zhang Huiwen) live. His yearning to be reunited with his wife became so powerful that he escaped from prison, risking death or an even longer sentence. Anxious to avoid detection from the cops, he comes down through the roof and the back stairs, placing a note under a door asking Feng to meet him at the train station the next day.
Since Lu Yanshi was imprisoned when his daughter was just an infant, Dan-Dan could not have the same bonds to her father as her mother. An added complication is that as an ardent Maoist who performs with a Red Cavalry ballet troupe, she falls into a blind rage against her mother for still loving the treacherous father and then turns him into the authorities. The next day when her mother begins waving to him at the train station, the cops chase him down and haul him off to prison. In the melee, her mother is beaten to the ground as her distraught daughter watches on in horror.
Once cooler and more capitalist-minded heads prevail in China, the Cultural Revolution winds down and political prisoners are released. This time Lu Yanshi returns home with expectations that life can resume to normal, especially since his daughter has abandoned her Maoist beliefs. But the trauma at the train station has left his wife in a near-psychotic state. When he shows up at their apartment, she demands that “the stranger” leave refusing to believe that he is her long-lost husband. His daughter explains that the doctors have no solution to a selective amnesia brought on by the trauma of their last encounter at the train station.
For the remainder of the film, Lu Yanshi tries one ploy after another to restore her memoriey, a goal made more difficult by dint of Dan-Dan’s furious excision of his face from family photos. Even when he sits down and plays a melody on the piano that he performed before being jailed, she cannot make the connection.
Although I can recommend a film that demonstrates Zhang Yimou’s mastery of filmmaking, I was disappointed to see so little information about what caused one of the main characters to be jailed in the first place and the lack of any attempt to size up the broader significance of the Cultural Revolution. In all the time that father and daughter deliberate together about how to restore Feng’s memory blocked by a peculiar psychosis, they never discuss the mass psychosis that overtook China. I suspect that this is largely a function of the limitations of the novel that Zhang adapted for his screenplay. Perhaps Zhang Yimou learned his lesson after making “To Live” in 1994, a film that critically examines Chinese history under Communism with little regard to whether it met with officialdom’s approval. For his efforts, the film was banned in China and resulted in the director’s suspension from the industry for a two-year period. I have not seen the film but noticed that Roger Ebert described it as having a message that ordinary people basically want a “quiet life” divorced from the political passions that made a break with colonialism and dependency in China possible before the collective insanity of the Cultural Revolution. In order for filmmakers to work in freedom and for ordinary people to regain the “Iron Rice Bowl” and much more, it will require anything but quiet.
Saving the best (by far) for last, “The Fool” is a Russian film that hurls a Molotov cocktail at the edifice of corruption and violence that is largely invisible to many on the left who have been suckered into believing that Putin’s Russia has something in common with Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela and even more incredibly with socialism. If you have illusions that Vladimir Putin is spreading oil wealth around to grateful Russians everywhere, young working class director Yury Bykov’s film will smash them into smithereens. Reminding one of Strindberg as well as “The China Syndrome”, the film looks into the heart of darkness that exists outside of Moscow or St. Petersburg with all their Mercedes dealerships and beautiful people. Its unnamed city is located somewhere in the boondocks and was created during the Brezhnev era. Socially, economically and psychologically, it would make Hubert Selby Jr.’s “Last Exit in Brooklyn” look like paradise by comparison.
Set in a cluster of terminally shabby apartment buildings, we meet Dima (“the fool”) at the beginning of the film—a plumber anxious to better himself by completing an undergraduate degree in construction, a major of the sort associated with trade schools in the USA but one that his mother finds useless since he will never get a job in the field unless he has connections, implicitly ones made through bribery or nepotism. Crowded into a small apartment in the complex, he shares a bedroom with his wife and young son while his mother and father are in a second. Over dinner, the mother, who used to be a physician but lost her job due to cutbacks, berates Dima and his father for failing to game the system as those at the top of the heap in their city do. Dima and his father are determined to defend certain civilized norms in the complex even though feral youth are determined to bring them down through drugs, prostitution, gang warfare and the other antisocial behavior we associate with poverty and urban anomie everywhere else in the world. Dima is a fool for expecting that things can change for the better apparently. It is not so much that he feels his moral behavior can change anything. Rather, it is that he cannot live with himself by doing evil, a stance I identify with completely.
One night he is instructed to have a look at some pipes in a nearby building that have burst for no obvious reasons, spraying a heavily tattooed drug addict with hot water at the very minute he is beating his wife for supposedly stealing the stash he had hidden for his next buy. A few minutes of inspection reveals that the pipes burst because the surrounding walls had compressed them to the breaking point. Furthermore, the walls were shifting because the entire building was turning in on itself due to faulty building materials finally surrendering to the forces of gravity just like a house of cards. When Dima spots a crack in the side of the building that extends from the ground floor to the roof and that the building is tilting at an angle like the Leaning Tower of Pisa (but unintentionally so and without sufficient reinforcement), he concludes that the occupants must evacuate immediately or else the building will collapse on the more than 800 occupants.
He rushes to a banquet hall where the city’s bureaucracy is celebrating the 50th birthday of a top official, a woman named Nina but who is affectionately called Mama. Her reaction to the threat of a disaster might suggest another nickname like Monster but Dima knows that nothing can be done except by going through official channels. When he walks into the party, with drunken officials everywhere looking like they had stepped out of a George Grosz painting, he is none too optimistic but proceeds to make the case for evacuation. Realizing that an investigation will implicate them for spending repair money allocated for the buildings on their homes, cars and other luxuries, they begin doing back of the envelope calculations to see how much it would cost to move the occupants to new apartments. They realize that the well has gone dry, mostly as a result of their own greed and indifference to fellow Russians who they regard as disposable due to their assorted vices. Dima also has a dim view of slum life but cannot accept the idea that they will die because of neglect.
The conflict between Dima and the bureaucrats is set against the ticking time-bomb of the building whose cracks will remind you of nothing else than the nuclear reactor that Jack Lemmon, another “fool” (or psycho), tried to protect society from in “The China Syndrome”. While it is probably a stretch to assume that the 1979 film influenced Yury Bykov, there is little doubt that the conditions dramatized in his film were familiar to him through the Chernobyl disaster of 1986.
Before going to film school, Bykov held down a number of blue-collar jobs just like his main character. In the press notes, he explains how he came to make this film:
I came up with the script for The Fool literally overnight — the time it takes for the action in the movie to evolve. I had just returned home, went for a walk around the town and noticed how old it looked, despite the fact that it was founded some 45 years ago. The houses, with rare exceptions, were in ramshackle condition, with blackened cracking walls. In the evening I listened to my neighbours talk about leaking pipes and roofs, and major renovation projects that ended up being limited to a mere face-lift for the sake of appearance or a tick in a report. Many were predicting that the building would soon just fall down like a house of cards. That evening I was watching the news on TV and there were five or six stories about the shabby state of housing, built mostly during the Brezhnev times or earlier. The housing services were unable to cope with the problems, utility bills were growing and the state was not allocating any funding for building new houses. Market prices were unreasonably sky-high and out of reach for working folk, so they were unable to live in proper houses. It was as if they lived on top of a volcano that was about to erupt, with no escape…
As is the case in China, such a state of affairs will only come to an end when a critical mass of the citizenry decide to abandon a “quiet life” and take center stage in politics. As is the case in countries everywhere in the world, filmmakers are in the vanguard of the “loud” assault on the status quo often leaving the self-declared vanguard parties in their wake. At the tender age of 34, Yuri Bykov is in the vanguard of that vanguard in Russia today.