DVD: China – A Century of Revolution (1989-1997) – 3 DVDs

January 11, 2011 | By

Return to: Home Blu-ray, DVD, Film Reviews / C

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Film: Excellent / DVD Transfer: Very Good

Label: Zeitgeist/ Region: 1 (NTSC) / Released: July 10, 2007

Genre: Documentary / China

Synopsis: 3-part PBS series chronicling the founding the People’s Republic of China.

Special Features: n/a

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Review:

Originally broadcast on PBS in three parts, China: A Century of Revolution is a remarkable documentary on the main events and figures that transformed a largely rural nation into an economic powerhouse between 1911 and 1989.

Writer Sue Williams and chief producer Kathryn Pierce-Dietz clearly seized on a rare opportunity to track down and interview as many participants of the country’s major historical events before time eventually claimed their lives – a loss that would’ve robbed history of their anecdotes and testimonies of personal experiences of the country’s civil war between nationalist and communist forces, war with the invading Japanese, and an ongoing war with ideologues struggling to modernize every corner of the country in spite of the glaring contradiction between a steeped communist society dabbling in western capitalism.

China’s history is so massively complex because it goes beyond mere class struggles, nationalism, and cult of the leader, and perhaps the only area the filmmakers never managed to clarify are the cultural factors that enabled nationalist Chiang Kai-shek and communist Mao Zedong to manipulate and control so people with incredible brutality.

Perhaps the lone hint of Mao and Chiang’s success lies in the first few minutes of the doc’s first part, in which the narrator explains the ancient practice of men growing hair long and braided into plaits/pigtails as a demonstration of their servitude to the emperor. It’s a physical gesture symbolic of the peoples’ respect for an anointed leader, and a father figure that’s trusted and followed without question, because his stature is also representative of society’s need for order and discipline.

Besides, the complexity of a dissection of Chinese culture would’ve required another chapter, so the filmmakers opted to integrate as many viewpoints to describe life under the nationalists and communists, forming an oral historical collage that’s at least impressionistic of what aspects of China’s rich culture were retained from the old, were upgraded, or cast aside during the tumultuous Cultural Revolution.

Contemporary audiences may find the tone and visual style of the series a bit slow – there are a lot of talking heads, and each of the three episodes seems to have been broadcast with a brief intermission just give viewers some pause – but as a primer on China’s last 100 years for western viewers, it’s dynamic and emotionally riveting.

The first part, China in Revolution: 1911-1949 (directed by Dietz and Williams in 1989), presents the key figures that led to the founding of modern China: Chiang Kai-shek, leader of the nationalist, rabid anti-communist party Kuomintang; Mao Zedong, leader of the communists revolutionaries; and the Japanese, who brutalized citizens and set up a puppet regime called Manchukuo, with former Emperor Puyi as figurehead until the end of WWII.

The emphasis is on the birth of the two rival movements in China, with a civil war eventually causing Chiang Kai-shek to flee continental China for the island of Taiwan, and Mao founding the People’s Republic of China in 1949, with himself as its first Chairman.

The second part, The Mao Years: 1949-1976 (directed by Williams in 1994), deals expressly with Mao’s bullheaded determination to industrialize China from a rural nation to an economic equal to imperialist England, the power struggles among the party leaders, and the Cultural Revolution.

It’s a dense, deeply complex series of events and characters in a drama that caused the deaths and torture of millions, and the destruction of families. It’s both fascinating and horrifying to learn the levels of changes Mao pressed into action, gradually moving from moderate to invasive and pejorative systems in which there was no sense of individualism, no religion besides communism, and any rejection punished by public humiliation (including “struggle sessions”) and becoming an outcast from the party and society.

The Cultural Revolution itself seemed like a jealous act. Mao’s first attempt at industrialization was ambitious and at times ludicrous, illustrated by phony crop yields that robbed peasants of food for years at a time, or using Soviet-styled industrial models of making products no one wanted to buy because an industry existed to guarantee workers ‘an iron rice bowl’ – work and food for life. When Mao stepped back from his chairmanship duties during the early sixties, a successor-in-waiting managed to turn things around and China was making major leaps in food and industrial production.

Mao’s reaction, consistent with his own theories of communism, was to renew the path to a purely classless society through struggle and chaos. Knowing many adults were benefitting from the country’s new economic improvements, in 1966 he called on teenagers and sophomores to take up his theoretical struggle, resulting in kids turning on parents, teachers, politicians, and authority figures, as well as jealous and vengeful people conducting a witch hunt and persecution of landlords or leaders with a cruel edge.

When it was clear mob rule was destroying a whole older generation and their history through violent acts of humiliation, Mao flip-flopped, and sent the masses of youths to rural areas, where they toiled among peasants in a re-education process that seemed to exist to break spirits and ensure their servitude.

The cult of the leader is also detailed, as it occurred in stages, with Chiang Kai-shek starting with portraits in public and private places, and picked up by Mao, but implemented with Soviet obsessiveness, gradually building Mao into a god-like figure whose very words were unquestionable and pure truth. (The cult template was also adpoted to similar extremes by Korea’s ‘Dear Leader, Kim Il-sung, after Mao’s forces helped repell the United Nations forces back into South Korea – an event also covered in the documentary.)

The second part closes with the death of Mao, the arrest of the Gang of Four (including Mao’s nasty wife Jiang Qing), and the manner in which people had to mourn Mao’s death without being too emotional nor detached to raise the suspicions of authorities that they might be less than earnest in their sense of loss.

The final part, China: Born Under the Red Flag, (directed by Williams in 1997), picks up when Deng Xiaoping, one of Mao’s original members from the 40s struggles, became leader in 1978, two years after Mao’s death. Deng went back to the economic growth measures he helped implement during the early sixties, creating new free market economic zones, allowing deeper foreign investment, and planting the seeds of the country’s inevitable growth to a global economic leader.

The doc’s focus is on the generation that grew up under Mao, became disillusioned after the nihilistic Cultural Revolution, and impressed with western styles, art, fashion, and democratic practices of the U.S., eventually causing a series of massive protests in cities, culminating in the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989.

The end of the massacre is more or less where the doc finishes, leaving us with a generation caught in system that by western standards shouldn’t work: a government controlled free market economy with residual hard line rules on free speech, sometimes with brutal punishments designed for public humiliation, and the convicted disappearing until they’ve been ‘re-educated’ and reformed – consistent with Mao’s iron-fisted rule.

The filmmakers managed to interview a wealth of survivors from numerous generations as well as associates or children of major figures, including Mao’s personal physician, and Chiang Kai-shek’s adopted son Wei-kuo. There are always multiple points of view – the nationalists, the communists, the victimized farmers and peasants, proud WWII and civil war veterans, and the western diplomats who attempted to find common ground with the various Chinese leaders.

Some of the horror stories from the civil war, WWII, the Cultural Revolution, and the government’s treatment of dissidents are terrifying, but the documentary isn’t about highlighting the hot-button topics that usually make the evening news. China: A Century of Revolution is an epic journey where the viewer cheers on natives for expunging foreign meddlers, is saddened by the poor that were worked to extremes, and is equally proud when the nation manages to assert itself internationally in the eighties after years of being ostracized by the west.

Dietz and Williams’ series is unique to the kind of intelligent documentaries produced in the 80s and 90s, as well as PBS as a whole, because it contains no CGI effects, psychotic editing, elaborate audio montages (even Tan Dun’s stereo score is sparse), and phony dramatic recreations.

With the exception of a mere handful of American and British interview subjects, everyone else is Chinese; it’s their voices (with English overdubs bridged by Will Lyman’s inimitable narrative voice), faces, and emotions that dominate and affect viewers. It’s also a docu style that’s been lost due to reality TV and History Channel productions designed to distill events into easy sound-bites within a preset 40 mins. template with ad breaks. Not unlike Ken Burns’ epic documentaries for PBS (The Civil War, New York), this is one series to have, and to re-watch.

Zeitgeist’s DVD set doesn’t include any extras – a shame, since it would’ve been great to hear Dietz and Williams describe how they developed and created this series over several years – but it’s not a great issue. The transfers are taken from older broadcast masters, but while the images may lack the crispness of current docs, the content is what’s important. (Even Burns’ Civil War was shot on 16mm film.)

Kathryn Pierce Dietz’ other productions include Time of Fear (2005), and two episodes of PBS’ The American ExperienceEleanor Roosevelt (2000) and Mary Pickford (2005), all directed by Sue Williams. The pair’s other collaborations include two episodes for PBS’ FrontlineChina in the Red (2003) and Young & Restless in China (2008).

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© 2011 Mark R. Hasan

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Related external links (MAIN SITE):

DVD / Film:  The Civil War (1990)

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External References:

IMDB: Parts One / Two / Three —  Composer Filmography

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Buy from:

Amazon.com – China: A Century of Revolution (Three Disc Set)

Amazon.ca – China: A Century of Revolution (Three Disc Set)

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