We are several days into the Chinese New Year. To help celebrate, I present a movie that…uh…got banned in China.
Tietou grew up in Beijing on Dry Well Lane. It was called that because the well had no water. But, let’s back up a little.
Lin Shaolong and Chen Shujuan have arrived at Mrs. Lan’s courtyard house to rent a room. Their friends are there to help them move in, as are members of Shujuan’s family. And that family will soon include Shaolong, he and Shujuan are to be married in a few days. The 8th of March to be precise. Lucky number 8. They are full of hope and vigor. Thanks to Chairman Mao and the Victorious Chinese Communists, a brand-new chapter in the history of the country is being written. This family has played its part in bringing the country to this point, and their future can only be better.
Suddenly, the radio reports that Joseph Stalin died. Shujuan’s mother asks who Stalin was. Well, it doesn’t matter who he was; the news is bad enough to postpone the wedding by 10 days. Lucky number…18. And, as a result, Tietou’s birthday would also be postponed. Ahem. But, whatever. This strange foreigner is dead, but everyone here is full of life.
The wedding does eventually take place, presided by Yunwei, one of Shaolong’s coworkers at the library. First, they must all pay respects to Chairman Mao. Sheesh. It has not been even four years since People’s Republic was established, but fine. After that, Shujuan is asked to perform a song, so she sings a communist song that turns into a singalong.
Dinner time. There is Shujuan, her new husband Shaolong, her brother Shusheng, her other brother Shuyan, her sister…uh…Sis…and her mother…Ma. Sis brings up her own wedding day, which was during wartime. In a cave. Her marriage was brief as her husband died in battle few days later. But it was still meaningful. A true believer, Sis asks Shujuan and Shaolong to continue the revolutionary tradition. Ma, who has lived through so much already to have to deal with this, tells her daughter to let them eat before food goes cold.
Wedding night. During the wedding, another of Shaolong’s coworkers, Guodong, had given them a set of tiny toy animals, but the head on the horse had fallen off. He tries to fix horse as Shujuan puts on fancy red cheongsam that Ma had made and had wanted her to wear for the wedding. Shujuan worries it is too much to wear out on street, but Shaolong likes it. He also has her put on veil. She is a little wary of wearing that on top of the cheongsam, but they lovingly tease each other until lights out.
A year later comes the baby. He was named Dayu or Big Rain, because it rained when he was born…or because he peed right into the bathtub. But everyone would call him Tietou, or Iron Head.
One day, a couple of years later, there is a commotion outside of the home and Mrs. Lan goes to look. It is a group of young people calling for collectivization, the reform of privately-owned industrial and commercial enterprises. The leader starts off with her talking points when Mrs. Lan tells her that her property is already jointly owned with the state and she had lowered everyone’s rent. The leader sees this as confirmation that Mrs. Lan is one of the good ones and needs not be subject to the rest of the speech, which would have been just a formality. They happily leave to go pester someone else on their list.
Uncle Shusheng visits with girlfriend Zhu Ying, who performs in plays for the military. Tietou is overjoyed to see his uncle as well as his new auntie. It appears, though, that Shusheng also has some sight issues, which he promises to get checked.
Shaolong is flying a kite with Tietou when Mrs. Lan asks Shaolong about district cadres making her a worker and not entrepreneur after collectivization, but her son had said that there is nothing they can do about class status. Shaolong doesn’t think that is right. It was said that Class status would depend on individual actions.
Well, this problem arises just in time for the Hundred Flowers Campaign, where the people can help the party rectify itself through criticisms. They are encouraged or even pressured to submit. They ask everyone at Shaolong’s school. At the library, Yunwei had spoken up on behalf of Shaolong and Guodong during a meeting that they had missed, just something against bureaucratism.
Family dinner. Shusheng visits again; this time his eyesight is even worse. Shuyan is bragging about going all in on the Rectification Movement, criticizing the bureau chief. Shujuan tells Shalong that Shuyan has always been fearless, but he looks a little fearful when he sees that Tietou had torn the picture that he had made for homework.
Shusheng goes to a doctor, who tells him that his eyes have badly deteriorated. He has to take care of them and avoid getting angry or irritable. That will probably be difficult when it hurts being suddenly exposed to bright lights. He talks to Shaolong and Shujuan about his condition. He thinks that he should tell Zhu Ying, as this will become her problem too if they stay together. Shaolong advises him to wait until the right moment, believing that it would upset her too much if he told her immediately. Shujuan suggests that he go to another doctor for a second opinion, in case there is a cure. Shusheng fears that he will not be in the army much longer if his eyesight worsens, and this comes just as it appears that Zhu Ying will officially join the Party. Shusheng himself was never able to join the Party, despite his time as a pilot. And if he could not become a member when he was a war hero, what chance would he have now with his utility diminishing. He had spoken up about this, wondering if the Party valued people like him as much as the propaganda said.
The radio tells of people using the Rectification Movement to intensify class struggle. It seems like news of this has spooked Guodong, who agrees to be an informant for the Party Secretary against Yiuwen, and even Shaolong if necessary.
Zhu Ying has gotten in trouble with her boss for complaining about being made to dance with the leaders, suggesting that she could spend that time studying instead. Her boss insists that dancing with the leaders is a political duty that is assigned only to reliable comrades. Zhu Ying asks why she gets assigned it every time, and casts doubt on its political purpose. Her boss warns her that her arrogance could jeopardize her chances for Party membership. He also scolds her for not reporting to him that she has a boyfriend. He tells her that politics must come first; she must not disappoint the leaders. There is always a reason, isn’t there?
Shuyan and two of his classmates stand in front of their peers, accused of making reactionary statements to their classmates and manipulating them into demanding that the education bureau chief throw out the system of socialist graduation exams.
Shujuan goes to meet Guodong, saying that Shaolong has been very depressed over the past two days. Guodong assures her that Shaolong needs not worry, even with the posters naming him as a Rightist. But what about Yunwei? Shujuan cannot believe that either of them is an anti-Party element, let alone both. Guodong is silent for a few seconds, and then suggests that she go home. And not worry about her husband.
Family meal again. Sis scolds Shuyan for letting his arrogance get him in trouble. Shujuan tries to get her to stop berating him, as if things are not bad enough. Shuyan kind of sarcastically assures Sis that he will not let his problems ruin her reputation, and she slaps him in response. He storms off.
Shushen is at a meeting where it is announced which members of the staff are to be…uh…rectified. Upon hearing his name, one of the people falls to the floor, most likely having just killed himself.
Shaolong’s workplace is also undergoing rectification. The Party Secretary claims not to believe that Yunwei could be the only Rightist in the entire library. After denying that the library has to meet a purge quota, he basically says that they have to using different words. There is a general hush and Shaolong somehow thinks that that is a good time to go to the bathroom. Well, it was not. When he returns, everyone stares at him.
Back at home, Shaolong is struggling to hold down his anger. Shujuan asks him whether he talked to his superiors about this….and why he went to the bathroom at such a tense moment in the first place. He has no answer to either. Outside, Tietou breaks a neighbor’s window, causing a commotion. Shaolong rushes outside, carries Tietou back home, and beats him, not caring whether the other kids are watching.
After that incident, Tietou sees his father as a bad guy and pretends to shoot him over and over. Shujuan tells him that Shaolong was just very upset. And that he is going very far away to help provide the coal that they need for the winter.
Things seem to calm down by the time that Shaolong has to leave. At the train station, Shushen promises to take care of Shujuan and Tietou as best he can, regardless of his eyesight. So Shaolong is sent away. And Shuyan is sent away as well. Will they ever return?
Yeah, not surprisingly, this movie was banned in China. It is said that the movie had to be smuggled out of the country in order to be screened internationally. And the director, Tian Zhuangzhuang, was barred from making films for ten years, though that prohibition was lifted after two.
You can probably figure out why the Chinese government had problems with this film. It portrays the actions of the Communist Party very unfavorably and its effects on the people as a net negative. People get contradictory orders that they have to eagerly follow or else they will get into trouble. And then they get into trouble anyways. Innocent people get punished for other people’s mistakes, or for no mistake at all. The powerful use principles to cover for their deviant behavior and those below them have to just accept it. True believers also get punished for believing what was true yesterday instead of what is true now. And some true believers even become…overtly and vocally disillusioned.
This movie shows people trying to live normal lives in a time that does not allow for normalcy. After a rather long introduction that establishes the family, the movie goes right into the Hundred Flowers Movement, where people were encouraged and even pressured to provide criticisms of the Communist Party. And how were they rewarded for their fealty? Suppression. Was this a panicked response by Mao to a flurry of criticism that he did not expect? Was it a tactic to lure out potential troublemakers and trap them? I have no idea, but the effect was that people were taken away simply because the powers that be demand a sacrifice.
Even on the level of cosmic coincidence, the Communist Party messes with them. The death of Mao’s greatest ally, Joseph Stalin, causes them to push back their wedding. Guodong’s horse gift breaks during the singing of a communist song, which may also foreshadow his betrayal. And there is a scene where he jokingly lets a Hundred Flowers banner fall on top of Shaolong and Yunwei, a much more blatant foreshadowing of how his specific actions will lead the two of them to their fates. But he had no choice either. Or, at least he believed that he had no choice. Neither did the man whom he reported to. No one did. The Party is all-powerful and can casually destroy anyone without a care.
Various members of Tietou’s family try various ways to live in Communist China and the results vary. Ma has seen enough chaos in her life; she understands nothing of what is going on, but she should be okay as long as she keeps her head down. Auntie Sis is a true believer through and through, which protects her…for a while. Uncle Shusheng tries to be a true believer as well, but when he starts to lose his sight, he starts to wonder if he has been left out to dry. Auntie Zhu Ying does all that she can to be the best Communist Comrade for the people around her, but has to make a decision for herself when it becomes clear that the leadership would rather abuse and exploit her personally. Uncle Shenyang is eager to stand out as true believer, but this fervor gets him in trouble when the winds change. Father Shaolong does not even do what Shenyang did, but meets a similar fate regardless. And as for Mother Shujuan? She just tries to keep the family together as best as possible, which does not always work. Even when family members are physically together, they are noticeably less happy than before, either outright unhappy or emotionally drained. Family ties mean nothing to the Party except as weakness to exploit or a liability to eliminate. The Party tears them down, tears them up, tears them apart.
And then there is Tietou himself. Perhaps as a result of…uh…being conceived ten days late, he starts out as a bit of a problem child. Sure, who among us has not peed in the bathtub at least once as a baby? But the film chose to introduce him that way, and so that is how the audience sees him, as someone who pees in the bathtub. He is not really a bad kid at first, despite his tendency to rip stuff, but it seems like he is the youngest kid in his neighborhood for most of his early childhood. His closest friend, Weijun, is a few years older than he is. In order to stand out, he sometimes acts out. Eventually, he starts going to school and interacting with boys his own age. And…it is not always friendly, especially when the others tease him for members of his family getting in trouble with the state. Sometimes, his older friends there to protect him; other times, he seems up for taking on the world.
Tietou grows up in a world that does not make sense, where the behavior of adults can turn without warning and family members can disappear with even less warning. Sometimes, he can view the state’s interference in normal life in terms of having fun through destructive behavior, without fully acknowledging how that interference has hurt him as well. Tietou’s rage is his way of coping with confusion and terror. In a world that is always in upheaval beyond his control and understanding, it is as if the only constant in his life is his mother. And his rebelliousness does not make things easy for her. She may wonder where he gets his attitude from; it could be from her impulsive younger brother Shuyan. There is a brief moment in time when he actually gets to interact with a child who is actually younger than him, and taking responsibility as an elder actually seems to make him happy; he feels useful and appreciated, perhaps for the first in his life. But, wow does it take a long time for him to experience that. And, by that time, is it too late for him? For any of them?
This is a sad movie of hope fallen and broken. It is an angry movie of a people betrayed and destroyed. It is…probably not a great movie to watch for Chinese New Year, but it is a great movie.
WTF ASIA 149: Secret Sunshine (South Korea: 2007, approx. 143 minutes)
WTF ASIA 150: Udta Punjab (India: 2016, approx. 146 minutes)