The People's Republic of China celebrates its 60th anniversary tomorrow and, as you've no doubt heard, it's going to be one helluva show. Sharon LaFraniere has detailed the meticulous preparations in the New York Times (see, too, the Boston Globe's stunning collection of photos at the Big Picture). The significance of this event goes well beyond eye candy, of course; whether or not it pans out, few would argue that we needn't seriously consider the notion that the 21st will be the Chinese Century. With its Masterworks series (Re)Inventing China: A New Cinema for a New Society, 1949 – 1966 and the clandestinely produced documentary Ghost Town, the New York Film Festival is opening windows onto the nation's past and present.
One thing to be said for this programming combo: It's made Kevin B Lee a very busy man these past weeks and months. Here at The Auteurs, noting that (Re)Inventing China is "the first major US retrospective of the films made during the 'Seventeen Years' period between the establishment of the People's Republic of China and the Cultural Revolution," he's presented "a loosely ranked listing of 18 of the 20 the films," while, for Moving Image Source, he's produced a two-part video essay, A Revolution on Screen (parts 1 and 2). Topping Kevin's list is Xie Jin's Two Stage Sisters (1965), a highlight, too, for Mike Hale, who notes in the NYT that it's "a sweeping, ambitious narrative that moves from the provinces to the theater district of Shanghai and back again.... Its emotional realism was most likely one of the reasons that the film was banned and Mr Xie imprisoned once the Cultural Revolution began. The obvious delight Mr Xie took in portraying the 1930s louche life in Shanghai, his hometown, probably didn't help."
"Xie is one of the most gifted visual stylists of the period, but for viewers in search of a more personally inflected filmmaking, Shi Hui's This Life of Mine  will be the ultimate discovery," writes Andrew Chan in his excellent overview of the series for the L Magazine. "As an expression of the New China's spiritual turmoil, the film engages in intense moral inquiries and ambiguities that are unparalleled in socialist cinema, even as it tries to toe the party line.... Films like This Life of Mine reinsert into all the bloodless rhetoric the complex feelings of loss, fear, and self-doubt that have changed and multipled across the country's many social transformations. What they show us through the rigor of their art are the profound uncertainties lying beneath our historical assumptions."
Before turning to Ghost Town, I should note that Simon Fowler, film editor for Time Out Beijing, has sent a dispatch from the capital into Little White Lies, reporting that "the cinemas have been chock full of the most jingoistic 'we love China/everything's okay' films in years. A prime example is The Founding of a Republic, which opened last week and has been sent to every single cinema in Mainland China." Other films are mentioned in the piece as well, but for more on that one, turn to Peter Foster in the Telegraph: "With hundreds of stars from China and Hong Kong, including the kung-fu hero Jackie Chan and Jet Li, telling the story of the Communist rise to power in 1949, the film is being tipped as one of the biggest box office hits in the country for years."
At the opposite of the spectrum of current Chinese filmmaking, we find Ghost Town, "a quiet, hypnotizing, three-hour documentary that provides an extraordinary and intimate portrait of Chinese life," as Kirk Semple describes it in the NYT. "Zhao Dayong, an independent filmmaker from Guangzhou, China, spent many months living among the residents of Zhiziluo, an impoverished and forgotten village in the rugged mountains near the Myanmar border, and filming their lives.... But what makes Mr Zhao's commitment particularly noteworthy is that his project was apparently illegal.... 'I feel very frustrated,' Mr Zhao said. 'I'm a Chinese filmmaker, and of course my audience should be the Chinese people, especially since my films are about ordinary working Chinese people.' He added, 'That would be more valuable than winning an international film festival.'"
"Those words could have come from the mouth of Jia Zhang-ke a decade ago," blogs Evan Osnos, who profiled Jia earlier this year for the New Yorker. "It made me wonder if he is struggling with the same issues that Jia once confronted: How can you be relevant to a Chinese audience if it can't see your films? How much coöperation with the state, for the sake of distribution, is too much coöperation?"
Ghost Town is "one of the most heartbreaking films to yet emerge from China's prolific documentary movement," writes Andrew Chan, this time in Reverse Shot. "[T]he film immediately sets out to strike the requisite balance between in-the-field absorption and calm, respectful detachment." It's "structured as a descent into increasingly bleak cases of family separation. But one of its tiny miracles is that this downward emotional trajectory reverses itself, turning more hopeful, open, and life-affirming as the situations become more desperate."
The film "paints a haunting trifurcated portrait of people set adrift by forced large-scale economic and cultural transformations," adds Nick Schager in Slant. "Full of prolonged, unbroken shots and scenes punctuated by piercing cutaways to the empty landscape, Dayong's direction exudes compassionate intimacy with regard to both individuals and spaces. And his repeated motif, of figures walking or driving off into the distance as the screen slowly transitions to black, deftly imparts the film's overriding expression of the crumbling community's transition into a dark, unknowable tomorrow."
"The movie would have made as strong an impression at two rather than its current three hours, but the images of a statue of Mao saluting this desperate, forsaken place are worth the wait," finds Manohla Dargis in the New York Times.
"It's novelistically vast in scope and physically tactile," writes Vadim Rizov at GreenCine Daily. "If it sounds like I'm temporizing, it's just that it's hard to describe the film's main pleasures, which are as much about taking in, in bracing fashion, the environment of Zhiziluo as any of the people we meet."
The subjects' "struggles are recognizable, but it’s the quite apparent yearning (both theirs and ours) for escape and betterment that makes these stories stick," writes Keith Uhlich in Time Out New York.
"Ghost Town casts a powerful spell," Nelson Kim in Hammer to Nail, and James Hansen calls it "an absolute must-see."
For dGenerate Films, Kevin B Lee talks with producer David Bandurski about filmmaking, festivals and censorship in China.
Images: Two Stage Sisters and poster for Xie Jin's The Red Detachment of Women (1961); Ghost Town.
Update, 10/1: "At a leisurely 172 minutes, the pic takes on the desultory rhythms of rural stagnation, its rigorous compositions imparting aesthetic weight and meditative scope to everything in its purview," writes Ronnie Scheib, who then describes each of the three parts of the film in Variety.
Update, 10/3: From Film Socieity of Lincoln Center program director Richard Peña:
Update, 10/4: "Ghost Town is a textured, graceful, and indelible panorama of the 'other' China, a sobering account of threadbare lives lived in the shadows cast by China's modern day economic miracle and its founding architect, Chairman Mao Zedong," writes Acquarello.
Update, 10/7: Nelson Kim talks with Zhao Dayong at Hammer to Nail.