Does the film Huang tudi (Yellow Earth) offer a critique of the Communist revolution? If so where and how?
Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou’s Yellow Earth is a meaningful and controversial film that highlights the young and old, realist and idealist, as well as the ideal utopia and bounded bureaucracies – touching on the notion of fate. Set in early 1939 in China, Yellow Earth follows the story of Gu Qing, a Chinese Communist Party (CCP) soldier sent out among the peasants in Northern Shaanxi to collect folksongs, to which the Communists intend to rewrite new lyrics to help inspire soldiers and peasant followers to fight the Japanese invasion and work towards the revolution. Gu Qing comes across a village holding a wedding procession and is invited to join the feast. He stays at a peasant’s home, and meets a father with a daughter (Cuiqiao) and a son (Hanhan).
There are several significant scenes in the film that suggests the filmmaker’s potential critique of the Communist revolution (CR). The film begins with a magnificent panning view of the vast and mountainous landscape. As with many nationalistic films, landscape plays a very important role, as it indirectly depicts the village peasants as slaves to the land, and a sense of hopelessness that comes with working the land. The several slow scenes focused on the horizon and landscape also represent the notion of an ‘unchanging China’, and it’s backwardness with it’s social and political margins. The film has many scenes depicting the natural surroundings and connection with the peasants, as illustrated in the scenes where Cuiqiao is seen continually making the trip from her home to the Yellow River to get water everyday. Although this chore would be one that the whole village is active in, the camera only focuses on Cuiqiao. The walk is symbolic of the tie that Cuiqiao and the other villagers have to the land. This notion is reiterated by the filmmaker’s use of long, wide shots of her coming across the land – initially, the only thing visible is the rolling hills with a small foot path, but eventually the viewers see a small red spot (Cuiqiao) in between two buckets of water. Instead of zooming in on Cuiqiao, the camera remains impersonal, allowing her to walk farther into the shot, as if being swallowed by the landscape.
The whole film is based around the peasant lifestyle and many shots focusing on the wide landscape. Aside from providing focus and depth of the film’s storyline, it also highlighted the fact that many rural areas in China were neglected during the CR. The long shots of the endless rolling mountains indicate the large geographical size of China, as the film is only focusing on one village and only one element of China. Over the course of Gu Qing’s stay, he learns that the folk lyrics in the village epitomise not happiness or encouragement, but rather the suffering and ill-fate they have under the ‘peasant rule’. This is subtly highlighted with Gu Qing’s reaction after asking the father’s age, as he appears much older than in his late forties – which reflects his premature ageing due to poverty and harsh living conditions (Von Kowallis). Such is also exemplified with Cuiqiao’s sad lyrics about her own fate:
In the sixth month the ice in the River hasn’t thawed,
It’s my own father who dragged me to the wedding board.
Of all the five grains, the bean is the roundest,
Of all the people, daughters are the saddest.
Up in the sky pigeons fly, one with the other,
The only dear one that I long for is my mother.
Cuiqiao sings this melancholy tune whilst drawing water from the river with her buckets. The sun is setting, creating the illusion of an even more yellow tinge to the river. The song describes the oppression young girls faced with forced marriages and their ‘fate’ in having to serve their father, brother, husband, and in the future, her son. The iconic still from the film is of Cuiqiao peeking at the wedding ceremony, with the words ‘San...
References: Barme, G. & Minford, J. (1989), ‘Yellow Earth: an Unwelcoming Guest’, Seeds of Fire: Chinese Voices of Conscience (Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe Books), pp. 251-269.
Source: Course Reader
Chong, Woei Lien (2003), ‘Nature and the Healing of Trauma: Early Films by Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige’, Critique Internationale, pp. 48-58.
Von Kowallis, I.E. ‘Huang ti di (Yellow Earth) (1984) – Summary’, pp. 1-3.
Source: Course Reader
Yau, Esther C.M. (1987), ‘Yellow Earth: Western Analysis and a Non-Western Text’, Vol. 41(2), pp. 22-33.
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