Yang Ban Xi

( Netherlands / 2005 )
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Yang Ban Xi
A documentary musical about the rise and fall of China's colorful propaganda opera's during the 1965-1975 Cultural Revolution and their renewed popularity in modern day China. Yang Ban Xi is the name given to the eight operas written to celebrate China's communist revolution. Based on traditional Chinese stories, the operas were adapted into pure propaganda told through beautiful images, incorporating the most modern techniques of cinematography, song, and dance. These operas were the only culture allowed in China for 10 years.
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Formats: Digital Copy, DVD
Running Time: 82 min.
Theme: Arts and Culture, Asian Studies, Cinema, History, Music
Language(s): Chinese, Dutch, English
Subtitles: English
Director(s): Yan Ting Yuen
Producer(s): HETTY NAAIJKENS-RETEL HELMRICH
Cinematographer: EDWIN VERSTEGEN
Editor(s): STEFAN KAMP
Excluded regions: Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg
Yang Ban Xi

Press

  • Like almost every art form, traditional opera was banned during China's Cultural Revolution. To replace it, Mao's wife, Jiang Qing, came up with the Yang Ban Xi operas: all-singing, all-dancing musicals with an uplifting communist message. The titles, such as Red Detachment of Women, On the Docks, The White Haired Girl and Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy, weren't exactly catchy. Nor were the lyrics. "Today we who suffer will cast off our chains," runs one anthem, while another well-known song offered: "He forces people to pay rent and charges high interest rates." These operas were created between 1966 and 1976, each one full of workers, soldiers and slaves who were burning with revolutionary zeal.

    The eight best-known Yang Ban Xi - known as the "Eight Model Works" - were also made into films, lavish spectacles shot in widescreen and eye-popping colour in an attempt to outdo the MGM musicals in scale and production values. The subject of new documentary, Yang Ban Xi: The Eight Model Works, by a young-Dutch-based, Hong Kong-born film-maker, Yan Ting Yuen.

    Yuen's interviewees look back with the same cheery nostalgia which characterises the endless British TV shows about pop music and sitcoms of the 1970s. A man confesses that when he was an adolescent, he found Red Detachment of Women intensely erotic. "Women wore very little. You could see their legs." Another interviewee says "the music was lovely." Others describe the excitement they all felt when the films were projected at communal screenings on giant sheets in the countryside. "They're engraved in my memory. We watched them as children. There was nothing else to see."

    Young and old alike seem fascinated by the Yang Ban Xi operas. When the operas are revived on stage today, both parents and their children flock to see them. Teenagers, Yuen says, regard them as "fun and campy - they look at the operas with so much irony. They like them but they laugh about them."

    Nonetheless, Yuen's film can't disguise the circumstances in which the operas were created. There is one telling interview with a beautiful former dancer who recalls how, when she was appearing in Red Detachment of Women, she was given fake eyebrows and told to put slices of apple in her cheeks so that the peasant she was playing would look sturdy and strong. (In truth, most peasants at the time were close to starvation.) Another leading light of the company tells the film-makers how he was arrested and locked up because he had the temerity to disagree with Jiang Quin, but he is not invited to go into further details.

    Jiang, or "Madame Mao" as she was nicknamed, is the dark presence at the heart of the documentary. The film-makers include a voiceover narration which purports to be her speaking from beyond the grave. "I was Mao's dog, his obedient dog. I knew they wouldn't forget me," we hear her croaking as the film begins. A tiny figure in a military uniform with a black coat, a cap and glasses, she can't help but seem like a Chinese version of Rosa Klebb. Yuen points out that Jiang once had aspirations to be an actress. When she was growing up in Shanghai, she had seen many Hollywood movies and was desperate to emulate them.

    So far the film has only been screened at the Sundance and the Rotterdam film festivals, but already it is proving highly contentious. Yuen's sin, in the eyes of her critics, is that she has made a cheerful, upbeat film that skates over the horrors of one of the most tragic episodes in recent Chinese history. "The film is very offensive in the way it completely fabricates the history of the Cultural Revolution," says critic Richard James Havis of the South China Morning Post. "There is hardly any attempt to contextualise. It's like a film about Leni Riefenstahl which ignores the Nazis."

    The 37-year-old director was aware that she would face such criticisms, but she argues that her documentary simply reflects what the Chinese people themselves feel about the Eight Model Works. She adds that it would be absurd to dismiss or ignore the operas simply because western critics and historians feel embarrassed by them.

    "When I got to China and started to research, I encountered so many people who had already left the past behind," she says. "They don't want to deny their history, but they can talk about it in a much more cheerful way than 99 out of 100 westerners would in the west, everything is good and bad, but in China, there are many more shades of grey."

    Yuen claims that some of her interviewees told her that the Cultural Revolution was "quite fun". "OK, they didn't like what happened to their fathers, but they were young and happy to be working on the land and 80% of the youth had a blast. It was the first time they left home, they were away from their parents and they believed in the revolution." Such an assertion is belied by one startling sequence in the documentary. To counterpoint all the footage from the Eight Model Works, with their energy and demented optimism, she includes a montage of black and white stills. We see horrific images of show trials and of old men being taunted, humiliated and beaten. These are some of the 20,000 photographs taken by Li Zhensheng, a Chinese photographer who worked for a party-approved newspaper. After the Cultural Revolution, photographers were asked to hand in their pictures, but he hid his photographs under the floorboards of his house before eventually smuggling them west.

    None the less, Yuen is not apologetic in the slightest about tackling a seismic moment in Chinese history with "a big, big wink". "You just have to look at the Yang Ban Xis with irony," Yuen insists. "It's like with Leni Riefenstahl. She is completely taboo, but nobody denies that she made perfect, beautiful art."
    The Guardian
    Geoffrey Macnab
  • Long before Nixon and Peter Sellars, and long before Made in China branded the world, the Chinese government produced state propaganda of the campiest kind. In the documentary "Yang Ban Xi: The 8 Model Works," the director Yan-Ting Yuen revisits the country's recent past to explore the history and legacy of one of the strangest byproducts of totalitarian madness: the revolutionary spectacular. With the onset of the Cultural Revolution in 1966, the government allowed only about a dozen revolutionary operas, or Yang Ban Xi, to be performed on stage and on screen; the most popular became known as the eight model works. Although filled with dancers lustily singing Mao's praise, these productions look eerily familiar, maybe because, as one performer remembers, it was "as if I were working in a fairy tale like a Hollywood musical."

    Ms. Yuen was born in Hong Kong but has lived in Europe since she was 5. Perhaps as a consequence, she approaches this overheated subject with a certain amount of detachment, as if she were standing at its periphery, neither too deep inside nor too far removed. Such critical distance is crucial because while the model operas were wholesale kitsch extravaganzas and enjoyably nutty, at least in the short clips included here, they were also deadly serious. The brainchild of Jiang Qing, a former actress turned dictatorial spouse of Mao, they were backlot Potemkin villages, elaborate cardboard visions meant to hide untold mass suffering. While rosy-cheeked, chubby-kneed dancers leapt across the stage, guns clutched in one hand, Little Red Books in the other, their less fortunate comrades were banished, brutalized and murdered.

    While Ms. Yuen doesn't shy away from the barbarism of the Cultural Revolution, and regularly reminds us of its human cost, she evinces none of the tendentiousness that can turn history into a droning lesson. Instead, using a nice mixture of archival material including tantalizing snippets from model operas like "The White-Haired Girl" and "The Red Women's Detachment" and interviews with both former performers and one-time consumers, Ms. Yuen suggestively argues that the past isn't exactly past in China, at least when it comes to its cultural production. What's especially interesting in this regard is that for some of the artists and musicians interviewed in the film, who were children during the Cultural Revolution, the model operas are not just a source of nostalgia, but also a sustained fount of inspiration.

    It's easy to see why. Like Hollywood musicals from the golden age, the model operas presented an idealized picture of both a country and its people, albeit one far less glamorous and well-choreographed than the one dreamed up by Louis B. Mayer. The end goals were radically different, of course, but the sales pitch wasn't all that dissimilar. When one model-opera performer explains that the films included low angles to make it seem as if the dancers were well-fed, the story recalls a thousand and one studio tales about artful deceivers like Josef von Sternberg carving cheekbones out of shadow and light. But whether Communist or capitalist, one thing remains clear: entertainment works its devious best when, as suggested by one middle-aged man's sentimental recollection, women wear very short shorts.
    The New York Times
    Manhola Dargis
  • A proper labor of love profiling many of the principles involved in the making of the films, peppered with a generous helping of wonderful clips.
    San Francisco Chronicle
    G. Allen Johnson

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Additional Info


Production Company: SCARABEEFILMS
Distribution Company: Films Transit

  • A documentary musical about the rise and fall of Madam Mao’s colorful propaganda opera’s during the 1965-1975 Cultural Revolution in China and their renewed popularity in modern day China.

    These 8 Revolutionary model operas were called the Yang Ban Xi. Based on traditional Chinese stories and adapted to the likes of Mao’s wife Jiang Qing Min, the first lady of the Cultural Revolution, these operas the world was presented in a much simpler way. All the good guys were farmers and revolutionary soldiers, singing and dancing in the broad spotlight. All the bad guys were landlords and anti revolutionaries with dark make-up. They were pure propaganda told in beautiful images, incorporating the most modern techniques of cinematography, song, and dance. It was the only culture allowed in China for 10 years.

    Although Madame Mao was ultimately convicted as a member of the Gang of Four and committed suicide in prison, the operas have recently regained popularity with the younger generation, who see it as a marvelous mixture of high and low culture. They are performed again and are now also available in Karaoke versions in the Chinese Supermarket.

    Exquisite original film segments from the YANG BAN XI, combined with interviews with those who played in them at the time and contemporary performances, open a window into present-day urban China and its burgeoning cultural scene, and make for a visually striking and captivating film.

  • Statement by the Director

    I don’t exactly remember when I saw a Yang Ban Xi on film for the first time. What I do remember is that its colours and cinematography blew me away. The style and camerawork reminded my of the great Hollywood musicals of the ‘40’s and ‘50s, that I loved to watch as a little girl. Singin’ in the Rain, The Sound of Music, My Fair Lady, Hello Dolly, Oliver, I’ve seen them all and I could sing along with every song. Watching that first yangban xi I thought it simply had to be a Chinese musical, and I thought it looked wonderful, even though technically they weren’t as advanced as the western ones. Only years later did I understand the propaganda purposes of these films and all the bad associations attached to them. It was simply not done to just ‘like’ the yang ban xi’s. Therefore, I was pleasantly surprised to hear that nowadays yang ban xi’s are embraced as a specific art by intellectuals and non-intellectuals, in China and abroad. Just one year ago, Heidelberg even harboured an international symposium about the yangbanxi.

    There are two things I’d like to state upfront about this film. First, is my intention to make a cheerful film, like the yang ban xi films were. So many documentaries that cover the Cultural Revolution as main or side topics display the horrors of the revolution. These are facts that are undeniable and cannot be ignored or taken lightly. I have no intention of doing so at all. However, what I do want is to approach this subject and its period, like the Chinese people do in the year 2005, with a great sense of humour and irony. This is omething that may be imbedded in the Chinese national character. Not everything was as bad as the western media usually emphasizes, a tendency that irritates many Chinese.

    Quite often, I have noticed that the Chinese and Chinese culture are mystified in the
    west. China seems to be a country that is made of cliché images and cliché topics here. Who doesn’t know the images of the round hills of Guilin, surrounded by low hanging clouds? Who has never seen the images of the Chinese farmer women with pointed reed hats, who harvest rice in the wet fields, accompanied by a Chinese flute in the pentatonic tone system? Or Chinese on bicycles at the same time crossing an enormous traffic crossing, ringing a cacaphony of bells? The following topics still attract the most attention in western media: Human rights, Falun gong, one-child policy. A correspondent I spoke to in Beijing told me that a topic such as ‘fat children that get sent to weight loss farms at the coast’ doesn’t sell because it simply doesn’t fit in the way the West perceives China. A befriended Dutch-Chinese Sinologist even put it more strongly: ‘The worst that could happen for western media is if China would ever become democratic, the media wouldn’t know anymore what to write about.’

    Secondly, I wish to state that I hope to create another image, that of an urbane culture in a modern China. A China that has won the Olympic Games of 2008 (and is tearing down all the old housing districts in the capital to present a clean and
    modern capital to the world). A China in which virtually all the teenage girls and boys drink Starbucks coffee on every street corner at a hefty price (because as an only child, they each receive considerable allowances from the incomes of not only their father and mother, but also that of two pairs of grandfathers and
    grandmothers). A China in which nothing is allowed, but therefore everything is allowed (as long as you know the right way of getting it). A China filled with contradictions, which tries to unite the old with the new and therefore, pragmatic as it is, has to rewrite history again.
    In the end, the film is about a specific period of Chinese history. However, by incorporating the stories of the people in their daily lives, I hope that the film is also about the lives of the people in the present in the cities of contemporary China, a China on the eve of complete participation in the Western world.

  • About the style and the content

    Quite often, I have noticed that the Chinese and Chinese culture are mystified in the
    west. China seems to be a country that is made of cliché images and cliché topics
    here. Who doesn’t know the images of the round hills of Guilin, surrounded by low
    hanging clouds? Who has never seen the images of the Chinese farmer women with
    pointed reed hats, who harvest rice in the wet fields, accompanied by a Chinese
    flute in the pentatonic tone system? Or Chinese on bicycles at the same time
    crossing an enormous traffic crossing, ringing a cacaphony of bells? The following
    topics still attract the most attention in western media: Human rights, Falun gong,
    one-child policy.
    A correspondent I spoke to in Beijing told me that a topic such as ‘fat children that
    get sent to weight loss farms at the coast’ doesn’t sell because it simply doesn’t fit in
    the way the West perceives China. A befriended Dutch-Chinese Sinologist even put
    it more strongly: ‘The worst that could happen for western media is if China would
    ever become democratic, the media wouldn’t know anymore what to write about.’
    Secondly, I wish to state that I hope to create another image, that of an urbane
    culture in a modern China. A China that has won the Olympic Games of 2008 (and is
    tearing down all the old housing districts in the capital to present a clean and
    modern capital to the world). A China in which virtually all the teenage girls and
    boys drink Starbucks coffee on every street corner at a hefty price (because as an
    only child, they each receive considerable allowances from the incomes of not only
    their father and mother, but also that of two pairs of grandfathers and
    grandmothers). A China in which nothing is allowed, but therefore everything is
    allowed (as long as you know the right way of getting it). A China filled with
    contradictions, which tries to unite the old with the new and therefore, pragmatic as
    it is, has to rewrite history again.
    In the end, the film is about a specific period of Chinese history. However, by
    incorporating the stories of the people in their daily lives, I hope that the film is also
    about the lives of the people in the present in the cities of contemporary China, a
    China on the eve of complete participation in the Western world.

    About the content:
    The film starts and ends with the voice of Madame Mao, who trumpets the fact that
    ‘her’ yang ban xi are not forgotten. Throughout the film she gives commentary on
    the real people in the documentary, her own life and history in general. In the
    documentary she is a fictional character with fictional comments, her comments are
    slightly based on real facts of her life. Since her comments are fictional, she is as you
    can say in a scenario: an unreliable voice-over. We the audience can see that some
    of what she says is distilled with jealousy or revolutionary zest, and therefore not
    trustworthy.
    The film has a couple of story lines of people, for example:
    Mr. And Mrs. Tong: Mr. Tong who made it through the yang ban xi, while his wife was
    denied her stage career because of the yang ban xi.
    Xue Qing Hua, the ballet dancer who despite all the trouble at least found her
    Madame Mao herself who ultimately became the scapegoat of the entire Cultural
    Revolution, and lived her life under house arrest until her suicide in 1991, just after she
    had seen the yang ban xi on national television again.
    Xu Yihui, who still is inspired by Mao and the Cultural Revolution in his works of art and
    used to be sexually aroused by the legs shown in Hongse niang ze jun.
    It was my intention not to create a dull history lesson, but to make a film about the
    people who lived through it and their lives now in modern China.

  • Function of the musical scenes:

    These are supposed to throw you off guard and also seduce you in kind of way that
    the original yang ban xi used to do. Young beautiful people dancing against a
    house version of The Red Women’s Detachment. Who can resist that? It’s fun, it’s
    joyful, it’s laughter. It should seduce you but also make you feel uncomfortable
    (especially in the last scene at the lake).So at times the documentary even takes the
    form of its subject: the propaganda film.
    Of course at the end of the film, the young artists says something very important: that
    art is supposed to make reality tolerable.

  • Cast Biographies

    Xue Qinghua, The Ballet Dancer
    Xue Qing Hua was trained in western classical ballet. At the age of 18 she was
    chosen to play the lead in The Red Women’s Detachment (hong se niang zi jun). The
    role would make her immortal; Red Women’s Detachment is still one of the most
    popular Yang Ban Xi’s. Even today people still know her name. Xue describes this
    moment as the most fun but also most stressed of her life. After the Cultural
    Revolution she worked as a seamstress, forbidden to dance because of her
    attachment to the Yang Ban Xi. Xue married and followed her husband to Hong
    Kong where she occasionally still teaches ballet groups.

    Tong Xiangling: The Actor
    Tong Xiang Ling was a classical Beijing Opera singer and actor when he was chosen
    to play the lead in Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy (Zhihuweihushan). He was
    extremely popular among the audience and even today he still gives out interviews
    about Taking Tiger. While his fame grew larger everyday because of the Yang Ban Xi
    during the Cultural Revolution, his wife’s career was denied because of the same
    Yang Ban Xi.

    Zhang Nanyun: The Opera Actress
    While Zhang’s husband Tong Xiang Ling became a star because of the Yang Ban Xi,
    her own career stopped because of the same Yang Ban Xi. Before the Cultural
    Revolution she was a successful, talented Beijing Opera singer and actress. Her fame
    was rising until Madame Mao and her lot, for no apparent reason, denounced her :
    well perhaps because she was too beautiful. She was degraded to a ‘black object’
    and was never to see the stage again, which she still regrets. After many hardships,
    nowadays she and Tong live happily in Shanghai.

    Jin Yong Qin-The Scriptwriter
    Jin was the notulist of the director when he was suddenly promoted to scriptwriter of
    Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy which starred Tong Xiang Ling. It was an existing 4
    hour Yang Ban Xi play, which he turned into a 1 1/2 hour yang ban xi movie, all, of
    course, under the scrutinous eyes of Madame Mao.He thinks of the yang ban xi as
    pieces of unique art. Even if you have the freedom to write what you want
    nowadays, it still doesn’t mean you write something lasting and good. Jin now lives in
    a small flat in Shanghai and writes television plays.

    Zhao Wei-The Guitar Player
    Zhao Wei plays the guitar in one of those many Beijing Rock Bands that spurred up in
    the 90’s. He used to be in the People’s Republic Army and enjoyed the yang ban xi
    very much when he was a kid.

    Huang Xiao Tong-The Conductor
    Huang is Zhao Wei’s favorite uncle, a retired famous ex-conductor. Being part of the
    old establishment during the Cultural Revolution he was locked up in a stable and
    forbidden to practice his art form. He tells his story without bitterness, almost cheerful,
    as an anecdote. It’s clear he has dealt with history and lives his life peacefully and
    happy in Shanghai.

    Xu Yi Hui-The Artist & Fan
    Xu is a conceptual modern artist in Beijing whose work is often exhibited in China and
    the West. His work includes porcelain Little Red Books, exhibited as porcelain kitsch,
    turning it into pop art, depicting the shifting values in modern China. When growing
    up he used to be a huge fan of the Yang Ban Xi and reveals to us what the youth
    really thought of The Red Women’s Detachment.

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Yang Ban Xi

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