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Chinese Cinema, Melodrama

The Legend of Tianyun Mountain (Tianyun Han Chuanqui, China 1981)

Song Wei (Wang Fuli) and Feng Qinglan (Shi Jianlan) (right)

This melodrama by the great Chinese director Xie Jin was a big popular success in its home market in 1981 – but also a film criticised by younger critics and filmmakers as being old-fashioned. Xie was one of the major artists to attract the wrath of the Gang of Four during the Cultural Revolution but this film goes further back in Chinese political history and tells the story of the wrong done to a ‘good man’ in the Anti-Rightist Campaign of the late 1950s. (Xie himself in this interview says that he got a lot of positive feedback from audiences and the film didn’t cause any problems.)

The central character in the story is Song Wei, who as a young woman is part of a team sent to the remote Tianyun Mountain region in the mid-1950s to explore the development possibilities of the region. She works hard and gradually falls in love with a geologist, Luo Qun. Wei is then sent to a school for political officers in the Chinese Communist Party. During the Anti-Rightist Campaign of 1958 Luo is falsely accused along with another member of the team – both had tried to prevent mistakes being made in local projects. The local political chief Wu forces Wei to give up contact with Luo and she ends up marrying Wu and leaving the district. Twenty years later, Song is Wu’s deputy in the administration of the region, having recovered from persecution herself during the Cultural Revolution. A young woman approaches her with a story about Luo who eventually married Song’s close friend Feng Qinglan from the original team – one of the few people who stood up for him. Wei has lost touch with them but she reads a long letter from Qinglan and determines that the administration should finally bring Luo back from exile (in which he works as a cart driver). Her actions inevitably cause conflict with her husband but when she learns that Qinglan is ill she is determined to find her.

Qinglan takes a sick Luo Qun home to care for him.

In some ways it is difficult to believe that this is a film made in 1980. It feels more like a 1930s or 1940s melodrama. Modern audiences might find it difficult to take but I love 1940s melodrama and I revelled in the expressionist moments in the film. Xie uses all kinds of devices associated with classic melodramas from a rich musical score to violent weather, mirrors and smashed objects, ‘excessive’ editing transitions and so on. The narrative proceeds in long flashbacks as Wei learns about what has happened to Qinglan and Luo Qun. At one point they seem to speak to each other as Qinglan asks a question in the letter that Wei is reading and Wei answers out loud.

Although the story is ‘political’ in its attempt to show how important it is to re-instate those who have been falsely accused, Xie’s presentation of the story manages to weave the ‘personal’ and the ‘political’ together, so Wu’s reluctance to reinstate Luo is to a significant extent fuelled by his fear about losing Song Wei to her former lover.

Everything I’ve seen by Xie suggests a director happiest telling women’s stories in a style he has made his own which marries classical Hollywood, socialist realism and Chinese melodrama traditions. You can view the whole film (the resolution isn’t great but it’s watchable) on this Chinese cultural agency website: http://video.chinese.cn/en/article/2009-10/09/content_72253.htm

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