Monday, March 17, 2014

Red Detachment of Women (China, 1971)

While presenting challenges of its own, Red Detachment of Women may have the power to redeem ballet in the eyes of those of us who have suffered through one too many performances of The Nutcracker. Instead of dancing tea leaves and sugarplum fairies, imagine pitched battles featuring severe, uniformed female dancers, all giving literal meaning to the term “bullet ballet”, with pliés that end in bayonettings and pirouettes that wind up to the hurling of grenades. All that alongside enough fruity, highly stylized scenes of terpsichorean hand-to-hand combat to make Chang Cheh wish he was born a woman.

Of course, Red Detachment of Women is not just a ballet, but also an opera, with much of its dialogue sung in the classical Chinese style. I’d venture that Chinese opera is an acquired taste to even the most liberalized Western ear, and the shrill stridence with which the film’s three leads -- prima ballerina Xue Jinghua, Qingtang Liu, and Song Chen -- deliver the libretto might provide an even more implacable obstacle to that acquisition. Xue, for her part, spends the entire film in a state of righteous fury which, thanks to her ear piercing range, is enough to blow your hair back whenever given voice to. Still, Red Detachment compensates immeasurably for any ear rending by being a fascinating and, at times, beautiful visual document, its painterly visuals and rigorously formalist compositions giving every frame the look of a Maoist social realist painting sprung into full Technicolor life.

Red Detachment of Women is basically a filmed version of a 1964 ballet of the same name that was in turn based on a 1961 dramatic film which was also of the same name. It is one of eight “Model Ballets” produced during the Cultural Revolution, in that it was deemed sufficient in its ingestion of Maoist Kool-Aid to be officially made part of the cultural cannon. This means that it was performed a LOT, with even Richard Nixon taking a gander at it during his historic visit. Reports have it that Nixon liked it, but when presented with something that is screaming for approval with as scary of an insistence as Red Detachment of Women is, what else is he going to say?

The film begins with peasant girl Wu (Xue Jinghua) making a violent escape from the clutches of the evil landlord Nanbatian (Chengxiang Li), who has imprisoned and tortured her for her failure to pay rent. (Here in San Francisco, tenants of rent controlled apartments would gladly accept such treatment over eviction.) Nanbatian’s minions catch up to her, however, and whip her mercilessly, leaving her for dead in a rain soaked field. Hong (Qingtang Liu), a military officer, comes upon her and nurses her wounds, then points her in the direction of a military camp where a new, all female army detachment is being trained. Wu arrives at the camp and is greeted with open arms by the detachment’s commander (Song Chen), who, after hearing of her treatment by Nanbatian, ceremoniously presents her with a rifle.

Enraptured by the thought of gunning down capitalists, and now, thanks to the Red Army, armed and certified to do so, Wu joins the detachment in their first mission, which is to raid Nanbatian’s estate and rescue the rest of his captives. Commissar Hong provides subterfuge for the operation by showing up at Nanbatian’s birthday party in the guise of a white suit and pith helmet wearing fancy man. In the end, they are successful, though Wu’s itchy trigger finger almost compromises the mission. For this she is relieved of her weapon, but one gets the sense that she just may get a shot at redemption during the last act.

The fight scenes here, while not at all aiming for realism, are nonetheless surprisingly exciting, marked by lots of high flying acrobatics and intricate choreographies of feigned violence. One sequence showing the charge of the women’s detachment, armed dancers leaping by in seemingly endless procession, some spinning like dervishes with colorful flags in hand, is breathtaking. No cautionary tale this, the message here is “War is awesome”, especially when it’s waged against such deserving parties as the leering Nanbiatan and his crew of willing capitalist thugs.

It seems that no matter where you go in world popular cinema, there is no more satisfying ending than that which features an armed raid by the heroes upon the fortified lair of a mustached villain. Even life under communism cannot slake an audience’s thirst for such spectacle, and so Red Detachment of Women -- daintily, musically, but, above all, energetically -- delivers it in spades. After Nanbatian attempts a raid of his own upon the military camp, the Red Army, Women’s Detachment in the lead, launch a devastating counterattack, aided by an armed mob of Nanbatian’s newly freed peasant captives. This decisive rout reaches a fine point with Wu fiercely singing admonishment at both Nanbatian and his chief crony Ou Guangsi (Wan Qiwu) before shooting each in the back as they flee. Hong, meanwhile, having been martyred in the attack, is paid solemn tribute by all in the detachment as the curtain -- figuratively -- falls.

While it left me mildly transfixed, I could see how all of Red Detachment of Women’s declamatory acting and stylized posturing could be welcomed by some as an unintended caricature of authoritarian rigidity, even if it’s one that is at times a little frightening. The hysterical pitch of the film could easily be seen as symptomatic of the period of brutal cultural suppression in which it was made. The frozen, wide eyed countenances of the actors, which were likely intended to communicate both vigor and revolutionary fervor, are just as evident of mania. In other words, if you want Maoist kitsch, you’ve got it, but in order to treat it as such, there is an awful lot that is hard, unforgiving, and aggrieved -- not to mention beautiful -- within Red Detachment of Women that must first be ignored.


Mark said...

The one thing I can say on this film from these pictures is that the cast were able to make their eyes look crazy. I think that's a compliment if that is indeed what they were going for.

Todd said...

Yes, these cast members have such a severe case of the crazy eye that I'd swear I dated some of them in the past.

Anonymous said...

Do you have a high quality version of this film? These stills look great!