Directed by Chen Kaige
Asiaweek named Yellow Earth the "Best Film" of the last 25 years in its 25th Anniversary "Best Of Asia" edition, August 11, 2000. The issue included the following review by Richard James Havis:
Nowadays, most people have heard of China's celebrated "Fifth Generation" of directors. Film-makers like Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige have enthralled cinemagoers with works like Red Sorghum and Farewell, My Concubine. As with other trailblazers, the Fifth Generation needed a breakthrough movie to bring them to the attention of viewers at home and abroad. That film was The Yellow Earth, filmed in 1984. Directed by Chen Kaige and photographed by Zhang Yimou, The Yellow Earth was a sensation at the Hong Kong Film Festival in 1985. Word quickly spread that something new was happening. In the following years Chinese films dominated international festivals. Directors like Chen and Zhang established themselves at the forefront of world cinema, and Chinese works superseded Japanese ones as the most popular movies from Asia.
Since 1949, Chinese cinema has been part of the state propaganda machine, and although some great films had been made, they were generally didactic. The Yellow Earth was pleasingly ambiguous, and although it did not directly criticize the Communist Party, it did point to its failure to achieve anything in the face of the many problems posed by China's vast land mass. Its aesthetics were also radically new and saw Chinese film-makers breaking away from many cinematic conventions of the past.
The Yellow Earth, which is set in 1939, centers on the relationship between Gu Qing, a member of the Eighth Route Army, and a peasant family. Gu comes to the village to compile a collection of folk songs, and he meets the young Cuiqiao and her family. She is due to enter into an arranged marriage, which terrifies her. She is inspired by Gu's stories of girls fighting in the army, and asks him whether she can follow him back to Yanan. While Cuiqiao waits for Gu Qing's return from Yanan with official approval, she is married. She decides to try to join an army unit that is camping on the other side of the Yellow River….
All this is played out against the land that gives the film its title. The Yellow Earth directly addresses the triangular relationship between the land, the party and the peasants, a relationship which underlies Maoist revolutionary thought. The peasants in The Yellow Earth struggle hard to survive against the hardships of the land, as they have done throughout history. Communism was meant to improve the lives of these peasants, and Cuiqiao [says at a climactic point]: "Here to save the people are the Communists." Taken literally, this line is politically correct, as it implies things will get better in the future. But in the context of the movie as a whole, it is a statement of misplaced faith which highlights how ineffective any political party can be against the great and unpredictable power of the yellow land.
The following is taken from an interview with Chen Kaige, also conducted by Richard James Havis, which appeared in the leading film journal, Cineaste, December 22, 2003:
It's been twenty-five years since Chen Kaige began his studies at the Beijing Film Academy. Little did he suspect back then that the "class of 78"-which included future luminaries Zhang Yimou and Tian Zhuangzhuang, among others-would first change the face of Chinese cinema, then go on to make an indelible impression on the international film scene. Chen was one of the first group of students to enrol in the Academy in 1978, when it reopened after twelve years of closure during the Cultural Revolution. Like all educational establishments, the Academy was closed while Mao's political drama played out. The young Chen, like most of the Academy students, had seen his education interrupted by the Cultural Revolution. He was sent to work in the countryside, in the southwestern province of Yunnan, where he chopped trees in the vast forests of Xishuangbanna. He then spent five years in the army. When schools and colleges reopened, Chen-the son of film director Chen Huaikai and Liu Yanchi, who worked in the script department of the Beijing Film Studio-took an admission exam for Beijing University's Literature Department. He failed, and decided to try his luck at the Film Academy instead. This time, he passed the entrance exam. Chen graduated from the Academy in 1982. His first film, 1984's Yellow Earth, radically changed the face of Chinese cinema. The film… was controversial in China because it was the first Chinese film, at least since the 1949 Communist Liberation, to tell a story through images rather than dialog….
Cineaste interviewer: The early films of the Fifth Generation are remarkably diverse. They encompass, for instance, Tian Zhuangzhuang's esoteric The Horse Thief, Huang Jianxin's satirical The Black Cannon Incident, your own contemporary drama The Big Parade, and Zhang Zeming's Cultural Revolution lament Swan Song. What do you think led to this outpouring of diversity and talent?
Chen Kaige: It's a long story and I like to talk about it. In the late Seventies, we were just recovering from the Cultural Revolution. No films were made during those ten years. Even the propaganda films were not made…. So the film industry was not in good shape. Consequently, we thought it would be very difficult to succeed as directors. We realized that we needed to do something very different to break through….. At the time, we were not very clear about what we wanted to do or what we were able to do. But we realized that cinema was our toy, and we could play with it. We realized that through cinema, we could express our feelings about what was going on in society politically, culturally, and socially. We were very political at that time because of the general situation in China. The second thing we realized was that it was important to create something new, something avant-garde. We wanted to create a new kind of cinema language. We were fed up with the way Chinese films relied so heavily on dialog. We wanted to create something very fresh, something visually based. You can see that in our first movies. The color, the light, and so on, are more noticeable than the dialog.
Cineaste: During the 1980s and early 1990s, the various 'Spiritual Pollution' campaigns waged by the hardliners in the Chinese Communist Party led you to deny any Western influences on your work. But today, you admit that classic foreign works you saw at the Beijing Film Archive were an influence, along with classic Chinese films and literature.
Kaige: We were influenced by Chinese traditional culture and Western cinema. We each had our own favorites, like Scorsese or Coppola. We knew of Truffaut and Godard. My favorite director was actually David Lean. I admire Lawrence of Arabia . I have seen that several times. I have done some very big movies like Farewell, My Concubine and The Emperor and The Assassin--historical epics on a grand scale. I got all that from David Lean. Lawrence Of Arabia is my favorite movie because every element is perfect. I like the size of it, the magnificent battle scenes. You feel like you are back in earlier times. You experience the war as if you were a member of the British Empire. As a Chinese, it didn't matter that we didn't know the politics of the story. It was a very human film.
Cineaste: How much did your real-life experiences inform the stories that you wanted to tell?
Kaige: I learned a lot of things from real life, from laboring in the jungle [in the forests of Xishuangbanna in Yunnan province]. I was sad at that time….I felt I had destroyed my relationship with my father [Chen joined the Red Guards in an attack on his father]…. I became spiritually lost. I learned how to smoke cigarettes-very bad cigarettes actually. One day when I had a cigarette break in the jungle-my job was to chop the trees--I realized that I had become comforted by nature, by the sound of the wind. Nature suddenly became a stimulus. All I could see at that time was a huge jungle--the birds, snakes, and wild animals. I realized I was a part of that. All of a sudden I felt there was something inside of me that I needed to express. Today, I feel that my initial creative stimulus was this experience of nature and the jungle.
For additional information, contact the Writers Institute at 518-442-5620 or online at http://www.albany.edu/writers-inst.