The Blue Kite (1993) 藍風箏

Country: China
Language: Mandarin
Runtime: 140 minutes
Director: Tian Zhuangzhuang
Starring: Lu Liping, Pu Quanxin, Chen Xiaoman, Li Xuejian, Guo Baochang
Theme: Politics

IMDB: 7.6/10 | Rotten Tomatoes: 100%

Film Festivals:
1993 Cannes International Film Festival
1993 Hawaii International Film Festival (HIFF)
1993 Tokyo International Film Festival (TIFF)

1993 HIFF Best Feature Film
1993 TIFF Tokyo Grand Prix (Tian Zhuangzhuang); Best Actress (Lu Liping)

1995 Independent Spirit Awards: Best Foreign Film

The Blue Kite (1993) by Tian Zhuangzhuang is a politically-motivated film set in 1950s to 1960s Beijing, a span of time encompassing three main events in China’s Communist history, namely the Hundred Flowers Campaign (in which deliberate attempts were made to flush out anti-establishment dissidents by encouraging them to be critical of the regime, before wiping them out), the Great Leap Forward (based on the economic Theory of Productive Forces, the aim was for China’s vast population to transform the poverty-stricken backward country from an agrarian economy to a modern communist state through industrialization) and finally the Cultural Revolution (in which liberal bourgeois elements were alleged to be permeating the party and capitalism was to be struggled through violent class struggle). It was admittedly very difficult to appreciate the nuances within the film not being well-versed in Chinese history, though research for these film notes after watching the film made it resonate deeply in me for its clever inclusion of anti-establishment messages that blatantly mocked the policies of Mao Zedong’s government then.

Little wonder that the film was banned by the Chinese authorities. Bypassing the local censors, The Blue Kite (1993) was smuggled out of China by Tian’s friends to Cannes, where it premiered in 1993. The harsh reality of the messages in the film led to a ten-year ban on filmmaking being imposed on the Fifth Generation filmmaker, that also marked the start of a near-decade long exodus from directing. A pity, indeed, given his eye for detail and an ability to capture everyday imagery on screen. And testament ot the everyday realism and simplicity of his images, he also does away with fanciful cinematic techniques, opting instead for regular standard framing techniques and camera sequences. He doesn’t contravene any standard cinematic rules, and the 180º rule is often used in dialogue.

The Blue Kite (1993) is typical of Fifth Generation films that do away with swashbuckling martial art elements of the wuxia pian for a more realistic portrait of life that captures everyday Chinese going about their everyday means of life. Perhaps the realistic depiction and illustration of hardship and frustration were too much for the Chinese authorities who are otherwise well-removed from the suffering of the proletariat to bear, thus leading to harsh actions by the censors. Caught through the eyes of a boy named Tietou, the film chronicles the period from 1953 to 1966 as the boy grows from a young kid into a teenager. The movie opens with a blue kite flying against the white horizon, supplemented with a children’s folk song in the background to evoke a quaint sentiment. This image recurs throughout much of the film, thus creating an stoic, determined, staunchly liberal attitude that stands in stark contrast to the regulations and clampdowns being imposed by the authorities.

The movie is also split between three chapters – Father, Uncle and Stepfather – and Tietou’s relationship with each of these characters. The three chapters also signify the three distinct periods of Chinese history. As Tietou’s mother remarries twice, following the death of his father and his uncle subsequently. These three characters somehow err on the wrong side of caution, get blacklisted by the authorities, and are either executed or sent away to reformative camp, never to be seen again. But what is pertinent is that Tietou’s mother, while trying to be happy and to make ends meet so that the family can be happy, fails at each time. Tietou takes centerstage in the show, evident through the frequent use of his voiceovers. Several cutaways establish the background of the family and the context of the town. We realize at this point of time that the narrator is the child of the bride and groom we see in the wedding. Though this is marred by news of Stalin’s death on March 5 1953, and their rites had to be postponed by ten days to mark respect – a sign of allegiance between the communist nations. Patriotic songs, rather than wedding tunes are sung on the wedding day of Tietou’s parents. But the father, Shaolong (Pu Quanxin) falls prey under the “Hundred Flowers Campaign”. From the point of view of a commited citizen who is very respectful of Mao Zedong, he openly voices out his opinions as he believes they will do good to better society. But they were construed otherwise, as the goading of the librarian who is in cahoots with the county authorities cause further comments on Shaolong’s part that causes him to be branded a dissident, and to be sent away.

Tietou is very smart for a precocious young child, and he is aware of the mercurial political climates within the country. He takes advantage of his youth by daring to question, by daring to ask, and in turn we see the mark of a pugnacious, rebellious and aggressive young boy who stands up for what he thinks is right. He notes the volatile, shifting political climates with numerous upheavals of the country, some of which bordering on plain ludicrious. Like how his landlady was charged simply because of her assuming the authority despite the fact that she had already lowered rates and should pretty much be viewed upon as one of the proletariat. He disses his mom a “maid” when she becomes nothing more than a servant to Lao Wu, her third husband and his rich stepfather that he isn’t especially fond of. He dares to ask, he dares to question, and we see through Tian Zhuangzhuang’s camera lenses a plausible indication of what Tian Zhuangzhuang himself should have been like in his youth, a prodigious young boy he must have been to become such a visionary filmmaker.

The Blue Kite, like many other films by the Fifth Generation filmmakers, is useful in providing international audiences an insight into everyday Chinese life. We see the typical Chinese home of communal living, and we get a sense of their blind allegiance to authority and Mao Zedong, bowing before his portrait everyday.  Even in a wedding, the bride and groom bow to Mao Zedong instead of their parents as a sign of allegiance to the country. The kite in this movie is a certain symbolism of freedom and democracy, and stands in stark contrast to the airplane references (01:03, Part 3; 05:00, Part 11) that also occur during the start of the movie. The blue kite’s subsequent ensnare within the branches of a tree becomes a stark sign that hope is being pilfered away from the hands of the locals and into the cold arms of the authorities. There is little room for any liberty and freedom in such a bureaucracy, where loyal citizens are easily branded Rightists at the whim and fancy of then government. Why, then a kite and not other flying devices? My only guess is that a kite goes with the flow of the wind, a kite is both subject to personal and natural forces, unlike mechanically-powered devices that might be akin to yielding a bull by its horns. In 8:53 (Part 11), the kite ensnared in the tree is filmed via a reflective shot that captures the kite being stuck in the trees and the two kids staring out of the window. Tietou tells his niece Niuniu that he can “make another one, an obvious sign of hope and defiance against where life has taken him to. But in the pivotal scene where his stepfather was hauled away and Tietou was beaten up by the Red Army, Tian resorts to a top-down shot (6:29; Part 13) that captures the severely-wounded Tietou lying on the ground with a trail of blood flowing from his mouth, staring up. We follow his gaze upward, and a cutaway shows the kite, still stuck in the tree, now broken and torn. The camera zooms out and gradually shows his entire body as he lies on the ground (6:52)


The Horse Thief (1986) 盜馬賊

Country: China
Language: Mandarin
Director: Tian Zhuangzhuang
Running time: 88 minutes
Starring: Daiba, Dan Jiji, Drashi, Gaoba
Theme: Family/Death

Ratings: 7.3/10 | Rotten Tomatoes: 100%

Film Festivals:
1988 Fribourg International Film Festival
2001 San Francisco International Film Festival

1988 Fribourg International Film Festival – Distribution Help Award

The Horse Thief (1986) by acclaimed Chinese Fifth Generation filmmaker Tian Zhuangzhuang touches on the travails of Chinese minorities in a follow-up to On the Hunting Ground (1984). The ethnic minorities are given a spotlight in this movie which captures the vast plains of inner China, and in particular their faith to the Buddhism doctrine and the numerous rites and rituals that they go through so as to shun evil spirits and to bring good luck to the community. The colors are vivid, and through Tian’s lenses the tough livelihood of these ethnic minorities living in rural villages come to life. There is minimal dialogue, save for a couple of terse exchanges that goes against common perceptions of a close-knit commuity as the villagers have to fend for themselves against the course of nature, but that mirrors the empty plains of the landscape. This makes the film relatively difficult to sit through at the start as Tian Zhuangzhuang strives to set the tone. But soon we learn to empathize with the villagers, and we feel their pain as they seek a spiritual connection with God to ease them through difficulttimes. After all, in the middle of nowhere, there really is no way for salvation except the heavens. The cinematography is plain stunning, and Tian’s exploration of a lesser-known indigineous minority has earned him rave plaudits in the form of Martin Scorsese, who declared the film as his #1 favourite from the 1990s on a talkshow with acclaimed critic Roger Ebert.

The protagonist is the titular horse thief, Norbu, in his struggle to bring his family up in Tibet. He steals horses for trade and bartering for food for his family, much to the chagrin of his fellow villagers who upon catching him, banish him from the clan and curse that God would not turn a blind eye on his misdeeds. In a sign that the heavens might possibly have listened, Norbu’s son eventually dies despite him not having renounced his faith. The devastated father strives to change his ways, engaging in rituals like turning prayer wheels, ceremonial dances and so forth in a series of voyeuristic scenes that capture the process of a human being seeking divine intervention in his faith.

The skies and the worshipped deities take centrestage in this film. The villagers give all their faith and belief in the Gods above, but one cannot help but question—and pity them along the way—at whether the skies are really listening. Tian films Norbu in his normadic existence, so starved that he has to eat newly-fallen snow, the character’s devastation at the loss of his son in laying the dead body in the middle of a snow-covered meadow (41:0641:15), the establishing shot accentuating his loneliness and emptiness now that he has lost his companion. He films the actual slaughter of a sacrificial lamb (no pun intended) that Norbu sneaks up upon and slits the throat of in an offering to the heavens. This grisly scene is as realistic as it is potentially morally offensive to some religions. The unsuspecting lamb tremors, and writes agonizingly as it struggles for its last breath.

This is Tian Zhuangzhuang’s third feature film and it is one of intoxicating beauty. The movie opens with lush colors and tribal instruments blaring in the background, thereby immediately drawing myself into the emptiness of the landscape through the use of depth of field and close-ups on bells (00:56), birds (00:59) and so forth. We get a lot of still sequences of otherwise emptiness, for instance, at 07:33-07:41, 07:4207:45, 07:4607:50 and 07:5007:56. There are close-ups of Buddha, of birds feasting on dead carcasses that create an impression of empty grandiose, and of rows and rows of villagers decked in monk attire and praying by the field. The crying wails in the middle of the movie symbolizes the birth of a  baby, preceding his capture on the camera. But memories run deep, and this child is no replacement for Norbu’s loss. The movie comes full circle, with the harsh reality forcing the family to desperate means, and the final shot is one equivalent to the opening sequence in a portrayal of karma, and that what goes around, perhaps comes around.

While Tian Zhuangzhuang would go on to make more controversial movies such as The Blue Kite (1993), I sense from the lenses of his camera a form of stoic realism at capturing the lives of the minority. There hardly appears to be any script, and the fluidity of the actions and landscape aid in conveying a striking reality in his documentation of the people