Monday, October 1, 2007

The Blue Kite - Dialectics of Chronology

Released in 1993, Tian Zhuangzhuang’s “The Blue Kite” is considered to be one among the several controversial films that were produced by China’s Fifth Generation filmmakers. Along with films like “Farewell my concubine” and “To Live”, “The Blue Kite” bravely exposes how the actions done by the Chinese Communist Party had been detrimental to the lives of the ordinary Chinese citizens. By serving as a reminder to its viewers about the negative plight that the Chinese have experienced during the Maoist era, films like this are powerful tools that could be used to socialize Chinese citizens to question the practices of its government. In fact, it could even be considered as propaganda against the government. Given that it poses a threat to the existence of the communist government of China, this film was banned from being shown in the said country. Consequently, Tian was also banned from making films for six years. However, the film still gain international recognition by being awarded as the Best Feature film in the Hawaii International Film Festival (1993), Gran Prix in the Tokyo International Film Festival (1993), and Best Foreign Film in the Independent Spirit Awards (1995).

In the movie, it was shown that life during the Maoist era was very uncertain. Things that you could normally do now may not be allowed on the forthcoming days for new policies will be passed, which may make you be branded as a counterrevolutionary. This shows how citizen action is contingent upon the limitations that the governments have set. In this essay, I will focus on how the governments, being the ones who possess the power within the state, control the behaviour of its citizens. In particular, I will focus on how people within authoritarian communist governments are being socialized to be submissive to the control of the communist party and why despite the oppressions that citizens have experienced, communist governments still continue to thrive.

Citizen actions are being limited in order for governments to achieve its goal of preserving the values of the state. Laws in democratic societies, which aim to promote the value of order, limit citizen action by stating what is not allowed to be done. Moreover, governments use state institutions such as the military, the police, and the judiciary in order for them to be able to prevent any dissent, which could pose a threat to their existence, from escalating. It is the control of the government on these state institutions that make the ones in power able protect their own interests.

Though government control over its citizens is manifested no matter what the government form is, some form of governments has more control over its citizens than the other. In particular, authoritarian governments (wherein communist governments are classified), possesses a greater control over its citizens than democratic governments. On societies governed by an authoritarian rule, it is common that the values being protected are values that are in line with the interest of the party governing the state. The mere fact that they are not bound by any law and that they are not accountable to anyone, such as the people and the different branches of government in the context of democracies, makes it easy for them to execute their own actions. As long as they feel that there is a need for a certain action to be done based on their own standards, they could easily do it no matter how oppressive it may be. Such great control of power leaves people living under authoritarian governments powerless and defenceless as compared to democratic societies wherein people are empowered to question illegitimate government activities.

Given that the authoritarian government could threaten anyone that goes against it, it becomes easy for them to manipulate people to accede to their actions. People are forced to commit actions that they would otherwise not have done because there is the threat coming from the government. As individuals, their primary concern is their own safety as well as those of people who are significant for them. We’ve seen various manifestations of this kind of behaviour in the movie. For instance, Shaolong was reported by his colleagues as a rightist to the Communist government even though he is not just because there was a quota that their office has to meet in line with the Communist Party’s Anti- Rightist movement. It resulted to him having to leave his family because he has to go to a work camp. During the second episode of the film, Shujuan had to leave Tietou for three months because she has to work in agricultural fields, because it is part of communist government’s Great Leap Forward agenda. On the last episode of the film, Lao Wu, Tietou’s stepfather had to divorce with Shujuan just for them to ensure their safety because he doesn’t want them to get involved in the trouble he is about to face given that he has a threat of being arrested by the Red Guards. On these instances, we saw how individuals are cornered to limited options by their own government.

Human by nature doesn’t want his individuality to be corrupted. Though we could see that there is only a limited space by which individuals could move within societies as they are bound by the rules espoused by their own governments, they still try to make the most out of this limited sphere by doing actions that aren’t contradictory to the laws present and won’t compromise their individual safety. Thus, we could see a constant struggle in finding the best life that could be experienced. In the movie, we saw that when Mrs. Lan wished to safeguard wheat for her own consumption (though this was confiscated later when communist forces discovered about it). We could also interpret Shujuan’s constant remarrying as an action done to ensure that her son will grow up having a father and that they will get their daily needs since it is only men who are mostly entitled to most of the privileges in the communist society that they are living at.

The Chinese people are conditioned to obey their communist leaders by the structure that was set by the government for them. It is only the government who could provide them their daily needs. The previous means of living by which people are surviving are taken away by the governments from the people. Thus, the people can’t go against the government because aside from the fact that they will face a corresponding punishment, they will also be deprived of the basic things they need to survive within the society by which they are living. This kind of psyche that every Chinese citizen has imbibed makes the communist left unchallenged by the people, makes their perpetuation of their oppressive acts continue, and makes the lives of every Chinese still dependent upon their government. A vicious cycle is kept from being repeated.

The bleakness of the shots of the scenes in the movie “The Blue Kite” reflects the uncertainty of life in that society. However, despite all of these uncertainties, it was shown by the director that there are still better days as signified by the days when Tietou plays with his blue kite, days which he enjoys. Tian Zhuangzhuang used the character of a kid, who is optimistic, ambitious, and is very hopeful, to relay to the audience how he hopes to see a better China in the future. However, the director reminds us that the concretization of our hopes is hard to be achieved for oftentimes, barriers and failure may come on our way just like when we saw Tietou lying on the ground at the end of the film.

Hague, R., & Harrop, M. (2004). Comparative Government and Politics: An Introduction. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
The Blue Kite- Wikipedia, the free Encyclopedia. (2007, September 17). Retrieved September 27, 2007, from Wikipedia, the free Encyclopedia:

- R. Beltran

BLUE KITE (Lán fēngzheng) [1993] is a Chinese political melodrama. It tells the story of the Chen-Li family, from 1953 to 1968 in Beijing told from the perspective of a young boy (Tietou). It covers three periods in Chinese history – the Rectification Movement, the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution – which also coincides with the three changing patriarchs in the family and the film’s three episodes entitled “Father”, “Uncle”, and “Stepfather” (Wikipedia). It presents a subtle but very effective indictment of Maoist China. This is not surprising because director Tian Zhuangzhuang belongs to the Fifth Generation Chinese filmmakers (along with Chen Kaige of “Farewell My Concubine”) known for their staunch criticism to the Cultural Revolution. It resulted to the film’s banning in China despite, or perhaps even so with, its warm international reception.

In the film, a blue kite is promised by Tietou’s father and later by Tietou to a child then last seen as at the movie’s end as a broken object caught in the branches of a tree. It is generally regarded as symbolizing hope (blue) although one writer suggests it could represent “freedom and democracy, which is fragile and liable to be ensnared by the hostile branches of an unthinking bureaucratic tree” (Lyen in FilmsAsia).

Chinese filmmaking inevitably takes its starting point from the relation of the character to the social space it moves. This assumes that the relationship among the self, the family, the workplace and the state that as reflected in the contemporary Chinese cinema is a continuation of the negotiation of the pre-Liberation traditions of Confucianism and the post-Liberation ideologies of socialism (Browne et al, 1994). The emotional contradictions found in this negotiation have been argued by authors as best captured by what is known as the “melodrama” (Browne et al, 1994; Bratton et al, 1994). However, melodrama is not part of the Asian genre system (Browne et al, 1994) and as they are known for their effectiveness in “illuminating diverse cultures” (Dissanayake, 1993), it requires a shift in cultural perspective. The idea of an Asian melodrama as both a distinctive popular film form and a framework for analysis (especially within the larger framework of cross-cultural research) became prominent in the 1990s using 1980s films like Xie Jin’s “Hibiscus Town” and the “The Legend of the Tianyun Mountain. Although these films are decidedly less radical than the fourth and fifth generation films, they set the pace by breaking from the propagandistic traditional of the Cultural Revolution (Browne et al, 1994; Dissanayake, 1993).

From this so-called Chinese melodrama, let us look its tree important aspects (as enumerated in Dissanayake, 1993) within “Blue Kite”. First, melodramas tend to give prominence to the activities, emotions, and experience of women. In the film, the most enduring character is Shujuan (Tietou’s mother) despite the loss of all three men in her life, the challenges of rearing a rebellious child, the misfortunes of her siblings, and in coping with the changing political situations. Zhu Ying (the girlfriend of Tietou’s Uncle Shusheng) also demonstrated a strong personality by going through imprisonment courageously due to the unfounded allegations of her Rightist leanings when she refused the marriage proposal of a senior officer in the army and trying to protect Shusheng. Tietou’s grandmother persistent in caring for her family despite the misfortunes befalling her children owing to their direct and indirect involvement to the party. One of the most explicit statements of the film regarding its consternation to the Cultural Revolution is when the grandmother expressed her weariness of the revolution.

A second aspect is the growing realization of the “complex and subtle working of the ideology in melodramas” especially as a “vital segment of the popular entertainment” (Dissanayake, 1993). This came with the spread of postmodernist thinking which did away from traditional distinctions (e.g. high and low art) . The writer herself has been unsuspecting about the ideological content of the film at first and thinks that even if she has no background about Fifth Generation films and the political history of China, Blue kite is still an entertaining and engaging piece. In here, a criticism to Communism (particularly the Maoist variant) and resulting destructive political and economic polices is central. It could also be claimed that with the new pace in the world today, films offer a quick but interesting overview of history, culture and politics across space and time.

That goes to the third aspect of melodrama which is its importance because of the ways they “illuminate the deeper structures of diverse cultures”. In “Blue Kite”, suffering – one of the central Asian concepts – is given nuanced portrayal. Moreover, the hope symbolized by the blue kite refers to the liberation from the sufferings brought about by the government. Let it be noted too that while melodramas in all its variants gives prominence to the family, the centrality of the family as the most significant socio-political entity in Chinese culture is further highlighted by bringing the effects of the changing political climate to all the Chen-Li family members. The focus is not the individual (not Tieto nor Shujuan) as it would have been to a Western melodrama but their whole extended family (by blood and affinity). The narration was left to the youngest member Tietou in order to allow him seemingly childish and naïve yet essential questions.

Some theoretical parameters of the melodrama also deserve mention. These includes the melodrama as essentially (1) moving in the “domestic” sphere; and the employment of (2) exaggerations/excesses, (3) the use of allegorical or stereotypical good versus evil forces; and (4) the individual shown as out of the mercy of something beyond his/her control (Dissanayake, 1993).

The first parameter is suggested in the development of the storyline along the Chen-Li’s family life. The second criteria is somehow tricky because there is, in one sense no elemental exaggerations/excesses but in another sense, the scenes describing the excesses of the party in power without consciously ‘exaggerating’ it suggests the gravity of the party’s misdeeds. The third parameter is also implied yet very much felt. Although the party itself could not be personified, the film had slowly built them to the ‘evil’ side and that somehow, the ‘good’ side in an absolute sense remained an aspiration. The last parameter is the most striking because a feeling of helplessness apparent especially as the film progresses towards the end.

To end; in discussing political socialization in the film, two settings deserve attention. First, from the film content, the strength of the state as an agent of political socialization can be most clearly illustrated when it profoundly affected the lives and consequently the beliefs and ensuing actions of the family members. The family has been said to be the primary agent of socialization (something that we, Political Science students understand by heart); hence, if the family itself, especially ordinary, law-abiding families like the Chen-Lis has to significantly alter their “family culture” to accommodate a insistent “political culture” as espoused by the state then the state has, for better or worse, greatly influenced political socialization. The retroactive stance of Fifth Generation films as exemplified by “Blue Kite” is in itself a manifestation of deep impression of living in similar conditions as Tietou (Fifth Generation filmmakers grew up in the 1950s and 1960s).

Second, viewers of “Blue Kite” could easily relate scenes in the movie because it revolves around family life. It also chose to take a lower middle class condition and emphasizes motherhood to invest on the emotional appeal. Lu Liping’s exemplary performance (earning Best Actress Award in the Independent Spirits Award, 1995) and changing palette – from warm bright lights along with the children’s laughter at the onset of the film to the cold blue shade and dismal faces towards the end – are also instrumental in subtly translating to the audience the hardships of surviving in a society where freedom, consistency and individualism is subjugated by ambitious political leaders under the guise of a distorted Communist ideology.


Bratton, Jacky, Jim Cook and Christine Gledhill. (Eds.). (1994). Melodrama: Stage, Picture, Screen. London: British Film Institute.

Browne, Nick et al. (Eds.). (1994). New Chinese Cinemas: Forms Identities, Politics. Cambridge University Press.

Dissanayake, Wimal. (Ed.). (1993). Melodrama and Asian Cinema. Cambridge University Press.

Lyen. Kenneth. The Blue Kite. In FilmsAsia.

Wikipedia. Blue Kite.

- E. Gutierrez

We have seen a Chen Kaige and a Zhang Yimou, and to complete our roster of films from the Fifth Generation Chinese filmmakers Triumvirate is the Blue Kite, directed by Tian Zhuangzhuang. The movie was a chronicle of a mother and child who lived to experience the Communist Revolution. Set at mid-20th century, the film maintained that the mis-en-scenes especially the color schemes were in sync in communicating the distress of the mother Shujuan and the child Tietou amidst the revolution. Watching the movie was like staring at a painting of a Madonna with a background of blazing reds, which represent Communism, and overcast blues, which stand for poverty and hardship. At a surface-level analysis, its abrupt scenes and fast-paced storyline might easily leave its viewers hanging in the air. However, no other style of editing could be more fitting enough to depict the oscillating condition of China during the said era.

Szymon Chodak was a sociologist known for his studies and conceptualization of modernization and its types. He defined modernization in general as a process of a radical transformation of a society into a new national identity from a traditional culture. Berger, Berger, and Kellner (1973) in their famous book entitled “The Homeless Mind” draw their conclusions using Chodak’s perspective as their premise. From their conclusions, I derive my thesis statement for the film which is essentially centered on the effects of modernization on human cognition and affection:

The process of modernization and the institutions that accompany it have had a negative impact on human consciousness of reality… The modernization process, which is supposed to free individuals, rather increases feelings of helplessness, frustration, and alienation that beset individuals threats of meaninglessness (Berger, Berger & Kellner, 1973).

Any radical societal transformation therefore has serious cognitive effects to individuals -- impact on human perception of reality in particular -- and affective effects – specifically feelings of misery and “homelessness”. The film consistently reiterated this by the experiences of Shujuan and Tietou and the others who are all aboard in the ship towards communism. To further explain and prove this claim is to necessitate a historical background of China during early 1950s and late 1960s, which is the context of the narrative of the film and is the key to fully grasping the depth of the film’s message.

The movie starts off at Dry Well Lane, Beijing during the time when China was governed by the policies of the first Five Year Plan (1953-1958) as a policy that aims to smooth the transition to socialism. Shujuan marries Shaolong who was a member of the Rectification Movement, a deceptive ideology movement which was mere bait for those who have political leanings opposite to the communist thought. It was the time when the Chinese landless peasants were all set to throw off the landlord yoke, to gain land, stock, implements, and houses. They were hyped up for change because of what their perception of what was to come and what should they do to fully achieve it. However in this first part of the film, which was explicitly entitled “Father”, we see Shaolong being sent for labor camp and leaving his wife and son less secure and more anxious. We then see a broken disoriented widowed Shujuan and cute little Tietou who was not in good terms with his father the last time he was still with him.

The first Five Year Plan was not quite a success and was responded by the government with the Great Leap Forward campaign. With this backdrop was the story of Shujuan and Tietou with the assistance of a loving “uncle” Guodong who at first only helped the two out just because he felt guilty and responsible for breaking the Lin-Chen home. The relationship soon progresses and Shujuan marries Guodong. He provided and gave them his everything even to point that he set aside his illness that it caused him his life. Significant markers of the Great Leap Forward, which were deliberately incorporated in the film, were the confiscation of the Dry Well Lane landlady’s stock of pork buns and Shujuan being sent away from home to work for a few months. These two scenarios gave emphasis to two key objectives of the Communist Party at the outset of the Great Leap Forward – the development of the communal system and the increased involvement of women in the mode of production.

Instead of losing hope in the ideals of Communism after the prior policy failures, the Great Leap Forward gave them renewed optimism. The film was saying that the reality consisted of famine, unbalanced production, oppression, women’s double burden in the labor force and the household, fathers dying because of self-sacrifice for his family, and negative psychological effects on children due to lack of parental care. But going back to my thesis statement, human consciousness of reality was distorted by modernization, and it is for this reason that the Chinese people during this time tended to overlook these realities.

The third part of the film was entitled “Stepfather” wherein the distinction rested on the qualities of the third patriarch. Lao Wu was a minor political party official who was silent, intellectual, a military man, and unemotional. His involvement in the lives of Shujuan and Tietou was during the outset of the third and one of the most momentous historical periods in China – the Cultural Revolution. The Cultural Revolution happened only after China’s reaffirmation of traditions under the leadership of Liu Shao Chi during 1961-66. Here we see Shujuan performing the domestic duties of the typical wife showing the Chinese society’s return to traditional family roles yet maintaining the major Communist principles. Tietou even sarcastically referred to his mother as “the maid” when he was calling his stepfather for dinner. It was 1966 when Mao wrestled political power from Liu Shao Chi through the Cultural Revolution, when he encouraged the youth to become Red Guards who struggled (politically humiliated and corrected) their principals, and purged the party members of that time. One of those party members was Lao Wu, who offered Shujuan a divorce with the intentions of protecting his wife and her son from the violence of the system. In the end, Shujuan and Tietou’s deeply entrenched sense of family made them come back to check up on their patriarch. They resisted the Red Guards and were beaten up; Shujuan was carried along with the ailing Lao Wu and Tietou was left all alone, lying on the ground, looking up sorely at the tattered blue kite which hung from the leafless tree. Indeed, it was the feeling of helplessness, frustration, and meaninglessness that overwhelmed me as I watched this last scene. It was then that I realized what the blue kite meant. The blue kite stood as the mechanism of the state to induce the feeling of hope through a political system or structure presented with seemingly sound policies and with promises that ensure a future for every family and individual. But just as a blue kite that was merely made from paper, sticks, and strings gets destroyed easily, the weak system will eventually fail without remedy such that the only option is to create a new one. I recount an adorable conversation between Tietou and his stepsister’s little daughter: “Look, the kite was stuck on the tree, should we come and get it?” the girl asks. Then Tietou, unconsciously mimicking the words of his first father, says, “No, don’t bother. I’ll just make you another one.”

- V. Ambrona