The Blue Kite
Reviewed by Kenneth Lyen
Chinese title: Lan feng zheng
Directed by: Tian Zhuang Zhuang
Writing Credits: Xiao Mao
Cast: Lu Lipeng, Pu Quanxin
Date released: 1993
Runtime: 138 min
Rating: *** (out of four stars)
The Blue Kite is a realistic portrait of a Chinese family and its neighbors caught in the throes of socio-political changes in China.
Filtered through the eyes of a teenage boy, Tietou, it chronicles the period from 1953 (Stalins death) until 1966 (start of the Cultural Revolution). Right from the start, and all through the opening titles, the film shows a blue kite flying in the sky, an image which recurs during the film.
The story begins with his parents moving into their new home, one of a cluster of homes looking out onto a shared courtyard in one of Beijings back streets. The parents are very loyal citizens, bowing to a picture of Mao Zedong and singing a patriotic song on their wedding day. Father is Shaolong (Pu Quanxin), a librarian, and mother is Shujuan (Lu Lipeng) a kindergarten teacher. The happiness of the newly married couple is shown by the way the husband teases the wife and twirls her on his back. A year later they give birth to Tietou ("iron head") an apt moniker for a child who turns out to be stubborn and rebellious. From then onwards events head inexorably downhill, and the story follows Tietou and his mother, their relationship with each other, and the mothers remarriages when two of her husbands pass away.
Tian Zhuang Zhuang is a very talented director with an eye for detail, and an ability to capture childhood innocence and mischief. His focus on the everyday life of ordinary people suffering from rigid ideologies carried out to extremes drives home the point that people matter more than dogmas. This era is fraught with absurd official proclamations, such as the one in which all sparrows are to be killed by the creation of such a din that the frightened birds would fly until exhausted, when they would just drop dead.
The year is 1957, and Mao has just instigated a new policy encapsulated in his slogan "Let a hundred flowers bloom, let a hundred schools of thought contend." The initial liberalization of expression is widely welcome. Unfortunately outspoken critics soon experience a backlash and become branded as dangerous rightists who are out to intensify class struggles. One by one the family and friends are adversely affected by this reversal of policy.
Some officials take advantage of their relatively senior position to get rid of their detractors. The head librarian, for example, had his critics labeled as reactionaries, and sent to a "rectification" camp. Shaolong is one of the victims, and is sent to work in a forestry, where later he would be accidentally crushed to death by a falling tree. Others, like the army officer who tried to impose his authority on his junior, Zhu Ying, would have sexual overtones. Zhu Ying is Tietous uncles girlfriend, and she refused his request to do more dancing in the armys song and dance company. The officer takes revenge, even after her resignation from the army, by having her imprisoned as a counter-revolutionary. Later, as the political climate fluctuates, she would be freed from prison. This would prompt a bewildered Tietou to question why she had to be imprisoned in the first place, and what were the reasons for her subsequent release.
The political turmoil also affects loyal communists. For example the landlady who has already shared her courtyard with the state and has lowered her rent, is nevertheless punished just for being a landlady. The school headmistress is shouted at and her hair cut publicly by her students. A high-ranking party official who, contrary to communist ideals, lives in relative opulence, with a chauffeur-driven limousine and a 2-storey detached mansion, is also stripped of his position and imprisoned when he falls prey to the upheavals. He is Shujuans third husband.
Overall the acting is good. The film captures the sense of frustration faced by the common people, whose lives are tossed about by an unpredictable and volatile political sea. The irony of the story is that the neighborhood is happy and peaceful at the start, but through a series of imprudent ideological edicts, chaos and death ensues. Although undoubtedly politics determine the course of events, it is the ability of the film to show how ordinary individuals are impacted by mercurial policy changes that give this film its universality and importance. Using a young Tietou to narrate the film, Tian is able to pose probing questions with unfettered innocence. As for the symbolism of the kite, it is tempting to interpret it as representing freedom and democracy, which is fragile and liable to be ensnared by the hostile branches of an unthinking bureaucratic tree.
Tian is one of Chinas Fifth Generation film directors. His courage in making this film deserves our admiration. He shot a film different from the script that he submitted for official approval. During the filming, an informer sent an anonymous letter to the authorities, and they banned its post-production. According to Sheila Cornelius (New Chinese Cinema 2002) this was supposed to be done in Hong Kong. The authorities stopped Tian from leaving the country, and the film was then sent to Japan where post-production could be carried out under Tians supervision via notes he had written. Smuggled to Cannes in 1993, the film made its premiere as a surprise entry in the Directors Fortnight section. Later that year it was shown at the Tokyo International Film Festival which was boycotted by China, and it won three awards including Best Film and Best Actress. The Chinese authorities banned the film from being shown in China, and they prohibited Tian from making films in China for five years. He founded a semi-independent production company within Beijing Film Studio to produce films by young directors. Unfortunately his films continued to run into censorship problems, and he stopped making films.