Film Review from the April 1954 issue of the Socialist Standard
"Socialism is impossible—at any rate not for generations because of the mass of backward people in such places as Asia who are incapable of understanding class warfare and socialism and would therefore render the advent of such a society impossible." Such a viewpoint which is held by a number of those otherwise sympathetic to the socialist cause discourages them from working for the establishment of this new society which seems to them too far distant to be practical politics. We can readily agree that Socialism, being an international system of society, requires the support of the mass of the workers of the world for its success. But peoples who are brought within the orbit of the Western world absorb present day mental attitudes and techniques at a speed truly amazing. The largest national group in Asia is the Chinese, who according to the census taken last June number 525 millions. It might be illuminating if we take a peep through the bamboo curtain at, say, just one aspect of society there to see if development compares with that of the West.
A Chinese Film
Such an opportunity presented itself when the Chinese film “The White-haired Girl” was shown at The Scala, London, and at a limited number of other cities throughout the country.
Cinema-going can be a depressing experience owing to the average run of shows being so mediocre, even though there are films made which could be regarded as competent and therefore of fair entertainment value. Once in a while a film stands out as a masterpiece—such a one is “ The White-haired Girl!'
The film was adapted from the opera of the same name and is based on a legend from modern China during the course of the recent change of regime there. For a Chinese audience it epitomises a story occurring in real life only too frequently. The scene opens with the peasants harvesting in the sweltering heat of a Chinese summer. Despite the idyllic beauty of the countryside there is a threat hanging over their heads— if they are unable to repay the loans contracted during the year the lender, who is also the largest landowner as is usual in that country, is liable to distrain on their belongings including their winter clothing. How well the Chinese audiences realise the significance of all this! To try to brave the biting cold of a Chinese winter without suitable clothing is equivalent to‘a sentence of death. In vain one old man tries to stop his daughter from overworking, for she is engaged to be married and has the additional expense of getting a home together. After lunch the engaged couple wander off for a short while and a charming love scene takes place —charming because of its restraint and sincerity.
There is a scene on the threshing floor which graphically demonstrates the exploitation of the rural people. This is constantly demonstrated in similar scenes in real life in China. This is of especial interest because exploitation in our industrial society is camouflaged by the wages system. The landlord’s large proportion of the grain is measured out contrasting with the pitiful remainder as the farmer’s reward for a year’s toil. The rewards of arduous toil are insufficient to meet the landlord’s demands and he asks for the girl in lieu of repayment. The father’s misery provides a poignant moment of the film and is acted with transcendant skill. On New Year’s eve she falls asleep on his shoulder. He gently replaces her on the bed, kisses her, then restraining his bursting tears goes in the snow to the landlord’s house and poisons himself on the threshold. He had hoped by this gesture to shame the landlord out of his bargain but it was in vain. The landlord comes next day—in China it is customary to settle debts by the New Year—and takes the girl to his home. Much to his chagrin she is taken over by the autocratic mother—a commonplace character in many families in China despite the apparently lowly place that women appear to have—for service in the women’s quarters as a slave. However, the landlord manages to violate her in the end. With the aid of another servant, her fiancé helps her to escape, is foiled in the attempt and fleeing the district, joins up with the Red Army. Eventually he becomes the leader of a detachment and later, when the Reds have conquered the area, is sent back to his own village to enforce the new land distribution laws. Meanwhile the girl becomes pregnant and, helped by another servant escapes to a nearby mountain cave. There in a scene marked by exquisite delicacy she gives birth to her baby. It dies. Her hair turns white.
Sleeping in the cave she lives off wild berries and plants eking this out by stealing the offerings from a lonely Buddhist temple and with her white hair becomes a legend in the neighbourhood. The landlord in order to distract the attention of the newly arrived Reds from his own short-comings, deliberately fires a house in the village and blames the white-haired apparition. The Red detachment goes off to probe this tale and the long-lost lovers are dramatically reunited.
The landlord is judged by The People’s Court, composed of villagers, who assemble and listen to the girl's charges against the landlord. Unable to control their passion the villagers try to lynch him but the Red Army officer insists on law and order. So the case proceeds according to the letter of the law. The accused is sentenced to death, and his land distributed to the peasants.
Here you see a fair replica of a scene that was enacted in many villages throughout China when captured by the Red Army.
Dramatic Art in Post-War China
A rapid expansion and development of dramatic art took place in the Mongol Dynasty of the 13th century although more rudimentary performances were known over the preceding 2,000 years.
The displacement of civil servants by Mongol and other foreigners during this period and the discontinuance of the classical examinations for the civil service relieved the educated from their preoccupation with classical literature, hitherto essential for the examinations, and thus freed them to write novels and plays.
A further literary renaissance coinciding with the founding of the Republic in 1911 also included dramatic art.
The standard of acting on the Chinese stage is very high—it has to be—for the production has not the assistance from stage scenery or effects. In this respect it resembles the Elizabethan stage. Their plays would be called operas in this country for the words are sung to music provided by an orchestra. This development from the opera was demonstrated in the film where the words were sung to an orchestral background. Percussion instruments which underline and emphasize the important lines in the traditional Chinese opera were absent in the music for this film while the haunting Chinese melodies composed in the western idiom revealed the influence of Western capitalism.
“The White-haired Girl" is more directly derived from the Yang-ko, a traditional village fertility folk dance. During the war against Japan this popular entertainment was developed and changed to meet the needs of Communist Party propaganda designed for a population who, not being able to read, were unable to be doctrinated with the written word. Various specific characters were introduced. After the villagers had joined in, the dance troupe would present a play.
The film demonstrates these diverse influences and also shows clearly the impact of capitalist ideology, as represented by the Land Reform Laws imposed on the old traditional social set-up of the landlord's village.
The action in the drama and the spoken passages are realistic and probably owe more to Western theatre than to Chinese opera. But as China has adopted capitalism and successfully assimilated it until now it appears to be somewhat of a Chinese variety of capitalism, so it seems that Chinese dramatic and musical artistes have been able to absorb the technique of western capitalism yet still produce a film which is essentially and completely Chinese.
“The White-haired Girl” demonstrates what is possible when the high level of culture and dramatic sensibilities and revolutionary fervour of the Chinese are harnessed to the technical knowledge of the West.
The Chinese film industry have equalled if not beaten Hollywood at what is usually considered to be its own game and in so doing perhaps indicate that the dismal Jeremiahs may be holding a mistaken view of the alleged slow pace of development of the fresh arrivals in our modern society.