• Director: Tian Zhuangzhuang
  • Writer: Mao Xiao
  • Starring: Lu Liping, Wenyao Zhang, Pu Cunxin, Chen Xiaoman, Li Xuejian, Guo Baochang, Zong Ping, Chu Quanzhong, Song Xiaoying, Zhang Hong, Liu Yanjin, Lao Wu, and Li Bin 
  • Accolades: 1993 Tokyo International Film Festival – Grand Prix, Shown at 1993 Cannes Film Festival, 1 Independent Spirit Award nomination (Best Foreign Film)
  • Where to Watch: Free streaming on Kanopy (library app)

I think what I’m going to do, given that I can’t really guarantee doing one of these things every day the next couple weeks for our World Cinema Winter Festival, is break up our planned voting into “heats,” sort of like one of these Olympic events. That way you all won’t have to think about movies from multiple weeks ago quite as much. So we’ll do our first five movies, then take a vote for which will “move on” to the finals, and so on.

Today’s entry comes from China, to go along with the Opening Ceremonies of this year’s games in Beijing, which was on purpose, and, unlike the torchbearers at the Ceremonies, it is definitely not what the Chinese government would choose to represent itself, a fact that is at least a bit more of a coincidence. The Blue Kite was immediately banned in China upon its completion, and on top of that its director, Tian Zhuangzhuang, was immediately banned for ten years from directing any more movies. Unlike our last movie, Ucho, which was also banned in its home country, The Blue Kite was, however, the immediate recipient of widespread acclaim outside of its home country. The Chinese government attempted to prevent its export, but Tian’s friends managed to smuggle out a few prints, and the movie was a big hit on the international festival circuit.

As I hinted at briefly in our article on Ucho, there is a part of me that wonders, when presented with a movie from a totalitarian nation that is openly critical of its own government, why the filmmakers thought they would possibly get away with this. It is sort of the same feeling I would get watching another person get into a very stupid fight with our boss at work. Like, in theory I’m on your side, but mostly I’m feeling intensely uncomfortable on your behalf as you make what seems to be a massive mistake. It’s like watching Michael on some episodes of The Office, where I would literally have to leave the room. On the other hand, you know, speaking truth to power and all that is obviously important. In this particular case, the Chinese government had at least admitted, to some extent, that “mistakes were made” during some of the events depicted in The Blue Kite, and there was a feeling in China of things being more open than they had been for decades, so maybe it wasn’t so easy to see the consequences at the time.

The Blue Kite is sort of a more intimate version of an historical epic, in that it tells multiple decades of Chinese historical events through the very specific perspective of one kid, Tietou, growing up in Beijing and his mom (Lu Liping). We watch them buffeted about by what are today known as the Anti-Rightist Movement, the Great Leap Forward, and the Cultural Revolution while living through the 1950s and 60s in China. We start with the mom as a happy young newlywed, and soon she and her husband (Pu Cunxin) have a son, Tietou. A few years later, the father builds Tietou the titular blue kite, but it soon gets stuck in a tree outside their house. Tietou’s dad tells him to leave it, that he will build him a new one. But events intervene, that does not happen, and the kite remains stuck in the tree for the remainder of the movie, a symbol of better times.

Tietou’s father leaves the room to go to the bathroom during a meeting at his library job where his boss is discussing how the library will have to provide the government with a few names in order to meet its “quota” for the “Anti-Rightist Campaign,” and when he returns to silence and everyone staring at him, quickly realizes the true depths of his mistake. He is sent to a labor camp, where he is soon killed by a falling tree. The second of the film’s three chapters then concerns the courtship between Tietou’s mother and a former colleague of his father’s, who Tietou comes to call “Uncle Li” (Li Xuejian). Li was friends with Tietou’s father and feels intensely guilty for betraying him to his death. Li works constantly and gives every penny to take care of Tietou and his mother, but during the Great Leap Forward food becomes very scarce. Unwilling to to rest, Li eventually dies from ill health brought on by malnutrition.

In the third and final episode of the movie, Tietou is now a teenager, and his mother has again remarried. We soon realize that she has no particular feelings towards the new stepfather (Lao Wu), and that the marriage is entirely a mercenary one, solely for protection and an escape from poverty. The new stepfather is a prominent Communist Party official, but this, it eventually turns out, does not protect him from the Cultural Revolution. Tietou returns home from school to proudly tell his mother that he and his classmates “struggled” their teacher and burned all the books, then seems very confused when she slaps him. Eventually the new stepfather realizes its only a matter of time before he meets his fate, and he offers the mother a divorce and all his money in order to escape his fate. But when the mob actually comes she seems unable to watch yet another husband taken away and attempts to futilely intervene on his behalf and is beaten. Tietou tries to help her, but is also beaten and left bloody on the pavement. The movie ends with a voiceover by Tietou, in which he says the stepfather died of a heart attack and his mother was sent to a labor camp. There is no word on Tietou’s fate. The kite is still in a tree.

The message of The Blue Kite is not subtle, and though there are many moments of joy throughout, as a whole the experience is a pretty massive downer. The movie starts with happy scenes from a wedding, with lots of bright colors. By the end, the palette is mostly muted blues. It is the story of a seemingly normal and joyful family experience being inexorably beaten down and drained of everything worthwhile by greater, inevitable, faceless societal forces, through absolutely no fault of any of our characters. This is different from, for example, many Holocaust narratives, which are often, to at least some degree, a meditation on how humans could do such evil things. In The Blue Kite, the people setting these forces in motion are completely off-screen. It is basically the equivalent of watching people suffer a long series of natural disasters.

Partly due to his subsequent ban, The Blue Kite is by far the most watched of Tian’s films today outside of China. Though not directing himself for the next several years, he went on to produce films for other members of what has become known as China’s “Fifth Generation” group of directors, including Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige. The latter director’s Farewell, My Concubine became the first Chinese movie to win the Palm d’Or at Cannes in 1993 and would receive multiple Oscar nominations, but was also banned in China, in that case primarily because of its depictions of homosexuality. Farewell, My Concubine would later be restored and re-released as part of an attempt to silence international criticism prior to the 2008 Olympics, but no such rehabilitation has been gifted, to date, to The Blue Kite.

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