It may be hard for contemporary audiences, even in China, to comprehend why Cheng Kaige’s Yellow Earth (Huang tudi, 1984) made such a mark on the development of Chinese cinema. The film is a curious hybrid of hypnotically expressionistic cinematography and socialist realist story, an ostensible celebration of the Communist Party’s role in Chinese history that also conveys a vague sense of critique – but of who or what is difficult to discern.
To make sense of the seemingly contradictory messages running through this strange film that heralded the arrival of the so-called Fifth Generation of Chinese directors, we need to understand something of the context from which these directors emerged, and the contemporaneous environment in which they were working.
Chen Kaige’s Beijing Film Academy class of 1982 was the first to graduate since the mid-1960s. Mao’s Cultural Revolution, unleashed in 1966, saw many societal institutions cease to function for nearly a decade, including the Film Academy. Much of the attendant feature film industry was also wiped out, with numerous film workers persecuted and killed, and virtually all unable to work. For a decade, Chinese audiences were fed an unrelenting diet of expository newsreels hysterically extolling the glories of Mao Zedong thought, and filmed versions of the “Eight Model Plays,” revolutionary operas and ballets that were almost the only dramatic productions deemed acceptable during those years.
All this began to change following Mao’s death in 1976. The reform-minded Deng Xiaoping pushed himself to the top of the Politburo pecking order, and in 1978 ushered in a period of cautious economic reform, accompanied by incremental cultural liberalisation. Film production resumed, the Film Academy reopened, and for the first time since the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949 debate about the country’s future began to play out in public. This critical culture was just gathering steam when Chen came to direct his debut.
Yellow Earth’s opening moments set the tone for a calculated stylistic break with the socialist realism that had dominated the post-1949 era. Chen’s cinematographer was his classmate Zhang Yimou – still three years away from his own directorial debut with Red Sorghum (1987) – and together they set about exploring how the image might complicate a script’s explicit meanings.
Yellow Earth begins with a series of pans across the arid, mountainous landscape of Shaanxi Province in China’s northwest. The dry, yellow earth fills the frame, leaving only a sliver of sky at the top of the frame. These pans crossfade against images of a communist soldier trudging across the hills, a solitary figure framed against an empty blue sky. The sequence plays out in silence, save for a desolate wind. Suddenly, two minutes in, an ancient lament is heard that seems to emanate from the landscape itself.
Yellow Earth continues the Chinese socialist realist trend of locating its story in the countryside, and a superficial gleaning of the plot also locates the film firmly in the Maoist tradition. While collecting folk songs to adapt as revolutionary anthems, a communist soldier opens the eyes of an ignorant peasant girl to the modernising potential of communism. Fleeing an arranged marriage, the girl runs away to the “liberated” area, although whether she makes it or drowns crossing the Yellow River is left open to question.
Yellow Earth did, in fact, begin life as a standard-issue Chinese film studio screenplay of the time, which Beijing Film Academy professor Ni Zhen recalls Chen Kaige was initially very reluctant to direct. (1) Esther CM Yau also claims that the odd musical element in the finished film, involving songs expressing the young female character’s feelings, was originally in the script to offer relief from the predictable plot. (2) Yet the actual experience of Yellow Earth radically destabilises the meanings intended by the socialist realist formula.
Most obviously working against the grain of convention is the film’s cinematography. China’s northwest desert never quite looked like this in the Maoist cinema. Ragged yellow hills utterly dominate the frame, creating the impression of a landscape both vast and claustrophobic, wide open and oppressive in its lifeless aridity.
Then there are the peasants who inhabit this space, portrayed as anything but the heroic masses eagerly awaiting their liberation. Their poverty is stark. When the solider first arrives at the village in the midst of a wedding banquet, he is served wooden fish, the closest proxy for seafood available in this remote inland province. The faces of the farmers are as gullied as the land they work, the cycle of youth, arranged marriage, painful middle age and death as immutable as the hills themselves. The villagers appear utterly impervious to change, labouring between an unrelenting cloudless sky and a cruelly parched earth that barely affords a subsistence diet.
Chen’s final defiance of Chinese cinematic convention of the time comes in the characterisation of the communist solider. Although he listens attentively to the peasants’ problems and superficially partakes of their lifestyle, the soldier misses no opportunity to belittle their beliefs and lecture them on how they should behave under the new, forthcoming communist order. He may have come to learn their songs, but he has no genuine interest in their culture. Rather, he longs to transform their way of life – with or without their involvement. When the soldier returns in the film’s final moments, the song on the soundtrack exalts the communists as saviours of the nation, but it is an image of a drought-ridden patch of yellow earth that fills the frame, while the peasants are last seen praying to the Dragon Lord to deliver them rain.
Yellow Earth’s portrayal of its rural setting bears the imprint of China’s “Cultural Fever” (Wenhua re) of the 1980s, a movement that saw the enthusiastic embrace of Western ideas, philosophy and literature by Chinese urbanites after decades of cultural isolation under Mao. Alongside this interest in all things foreign, there was a wide-ranging, critical debate about Chinese culture following the perceived disaster of Maoism and the Cultural Revolution. These debates centred on the question of why China’s attempts at achieving modernisation had repeatedly failed. The controversial television series River Elegy, aired in 1988, provided an unequivocal, rather condescending answer, positing the conservative peasantry’s supposed deep resistance to change as a central part of China’s “problem.” While some have read Yellow Earth as an indictment of the Communist Party’s highhanded approach and ineffectiveness at relieving rural poverty, the film can also be read as preempting River Elegy’s message, offering a lament for the peasantry’s resistance to the party’s modernising project. (3)
Yet for all the fatalism of the rural folk in Yellow Earth, it is their stoic faces that linger after the film’s final frame, rather than the utopian clichés of the communist soldier. That, and the sense of a culture that proudly endures despite eons of hardship and outside attempts to force change.
It is this strange sense of instability, of not being able to pin down this film’s final meaning, that continues to fascinate three decades after Yellow Earth burst onto the international stage via the Hong Kong Film Festival in 1985. Although not actually banned in China, the film’s suffocating atmospherics, stark evocation of rural life, burning images and open ending provoked deep disquiet in China’s Film Bureau. These same elements mark Yellow Earth as an important step away from the orthodoxies of Maoist cinema, an attempt at serious cinematic reflection in an environment where much still had to remain unsaid.
1. Ni Zhen, Memoirs from the Beijing Film Academy: The Genesis of China’s Fifth Generation, trans. Chris Berry (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2002), pp. 175–76. According to Ni Zhen, Chen had originally proposed directing a self-penned story entitled Let’s Call it Hope Valley about urban youths sent to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution, but Guangxi Film Studio “flatly rejected” Chen’s script.
2. Esther CM Yau, “Yellow Earth: Western Analysis and a Non-Western Text,” Film Quarterly 41:2 (Winter 1987–88), p. 94.
3. The complete script for River Elegy was published in English as Su Xiaokang and Wang Luxiang, Deathsong of the River: A Reader’s Guide to the Chinese TV Series Heshang, trans. Richard W. Bodman and Pin P. Wan (Ithaca, USA: Cornell University East Asia Program, 1991).
Yellow Earth (Huang tudi 1984 People’s Republic of China 87 mins)
Prod Co: Youth Unit of the Guangxi Film Studio Dir: Chen Kaige Scr: Zhang Ziliang Phot: Zhang Yimou Ed: Wan Liu and Pei Xiaonan Art Dir: He Qun Mus: Zhao Jiping
Cast: Xue Bai, Wang Xueqi, Tan Tuo, Liu Qiang