Hard though it may be for media-saturated Westerners to imagine, during much of Mao's 1967-77 Cultural Revolution there was nothing playing in China's cinemas and theaters but a handful of revolutionary model operas known as Yang Ban Xi. Traditional ballets, plays and classical musical-theater pieces that had formed an essential part of Chinese culture for centuries were branded as counterrevolutionary and banned, and countless playwrights, performers and directors were persecuted. In their place, Mao's wife Jiang Qing, who has shouldered much of the blame for the worst of the Cultural Revolution's excesses, insisted on the production of five so-called "model plays," whose sole purpose was the propagation of Mao's ideology. A smattering of others later joined the core list of permitted works, including the notorious ballet The Red Detachment of Women, based on Xie Jin's classic 1961 film and remade in 1971. Yan Ting Yuen's colorful and disconcertingly cheerful documentary reveals too little of the brutal reality beneath the Cultural Revolution's ecstatic grin, but offers a wealth of rare glimpses of the works themselves, which are once again being staged in China. That they inspire nostalgia among both old and young is attributable to the fact that the Yang Ban Xi were the sole cultural artifacts for an entire generation of Chinese youth who cling to their memories of the productions in much the same way that Westerners hold terrible TV shows in such fond regard. It's easy to laugh at these hopelessly dated works, with their stock characters and melodramatic plots involving strong peasants overcoming evil landowners, and The Red Detachment of Women's ridiculous heroic posturing and maniacally happy ballerinas (in red pointe shoes, of course) may be the ultimate in Maoist kitsch. But to treat them as mere camp is to miss the point and underestimate their continuing power. Of all the people Yuen interviews actors, directors and screenwriters involved in the original productions, as well as fans of their handiwork what lingers is the observation of the thoughtful young artist who admires these productions: He believes it's the function of art to hide the reality that makes you shudder. Yuen would have been better off exposing more of that reality and celebrating less of the joyful silliness of the model works, let alone staging pointless hip-hop-inflected dance numbers set to Yang Ban Xi musical themes.
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- Released: 2005
- Rating: NR
- Review: Hard though it may be for media-saturated Westerners to imagine, during much of Mao's 1967-77 Cultural Revolution there was nothing playing in China's cinemas and theaters but a handful of revolutionary model operas known as Yang Ban Xi. Traditional ballet… (more)