5 Communist Propaganda Films That Don’t Suck

For some odd, odd reason, I enjoy watching Communist Era Propaganda films. They aren’t very good, and most aren’t that enjoyable… yet I have this morbid fascination that compels me to see them. Perhaps it’s just the completionist in me that forces me to bear them, just for the sake of saying I’ve seen them.. but eh. Sometimes you just like what you like. Thankfully, I’ve discovered a few gems along the way that have made sitting through hours of some crappy movies worth it. Here are 5 that definitely don’t suck.

Wan shui qian shan / The Long March (1959)

That's... actually a chain bridge over a river. Huh.

1. Wan shui qian shan / The Long March
Director: Cheng Yin, Hua Chun
Year: 1959
Cast: Lan Ma, Li Meng, Chen Huiliang, Huang Kai
Rating: 8

Summary:
Old Li is injured during one of the many confrontations between the Chinese and Japanese armies. Now, he and his company must trek through mountains, marshes, meadows and plains to reach their next engagement, but Old Li is having a difficult time making it through. The troop, loyal to their instructor and friend, do whatever it takes to help him make it.

Comments:
An excellent drama, probably one of the best propaganda films made during this period. Old Li is a great protagonist, nuanced and well crafted, which is really rare for movies from this period. It’s his character’s bravery, and the difficult journey he must make, that makes this one special. There are also a couple of nice war sequences at the beginning, but at its heart this one is more of a drama.

——–

Gao shan xia de hua huan / Wreaths at the Foot of the Mountain

Not seen: wreaths and other nonbadass things

2. Gao shan xia de hua huan / Wreaths at the Foot of the Mountain
Director: Xie Jin
Year: 1985
Cast: Gai Ke, Guan Zhongxian, Lu Xiaohe, Ni Dahong, Sigin Gaowa, Tang Guoqiang, Wang Yumei
Rating: 8.1

Summary:
The story of a troupe of soldiers during the Sino-Vietnam war of 1979.

Comments:
The summary doesn’t sound very great, but so much happens in the movie that it’s a little difficult to come up with a summary. You get camaraderie between soldiers, corruption in the army, training sequences, heroic leaders, repentful leaders, and lots and lots of tears. It’s more similar to modern war movies that focus on character and tragedy rather than war films from the 60s and 70s that wanted to show heroism, nationalism, and of course a win for the home side. Definitely one of the best war movies ever to come from China. It probably doesn’t count as a communist propaganda film but… I had nowhere else to put it. :p

——–

Yong bu xiao shi de dian bo / The Eternal Wave

August First Film Studio: your source of communist propaganda movies

3. Yong bu xiao shi de dian bo / The Eternal Wave
Director: Wang Ping
Year: 1958
Cast: Huang Wansu, Sun Daolin, Wang Gang-Xin, Xing Jitian, Yuan Xia
Rating: 6.5

Summary:
Communist Party undercover agents operate in Shanghai in 1939 against the Japanese.

Comments:
Spies! Okay, they are spies, but this is actually a bit more like a domestic drama between two spies of the communist army who act as husband and wife to try to stay under the radar. It focuses more on the difficulties in living that double life–and it’s not sexy or exciting like James Bond. There’s not a lot of action and there’s quite a bit of talking, but the movie is pretty solid especially compared to its contemporaries. The movie also stars Sun Daolin, one of the few actors from this period who I actually recognize (so I’ll just assume he was a big star during the day). This one has a modern remake, I think.

——–

Di lei zhan/ Warfare of Landmine

Pvt. McBadass casually takes a stroll with mines hanging from his neck

4. Di lei zhan/ Warfare of Landmine
Director: Tang Yingqi, Xu Da, Wu Jianhai
Year: 1962
Cast: Bai Dajun, Zhao Changrui, Wu Jianhai, Lu Zaiyun, Xu Fuchang
Rating: 6.2

Summary:
It’s the Sino-Japanese War (as usual), and the Japanese army slowly takes control of Jiaodong county. With few soldiers and an overstretched line, the Chinese army decides to train the locals on the use of landmines! Yes, there will be a lot of explosions.

Comments:
Well, this is just silly. But in a good way? After having scene hours upon hours of propaganda films, I’ve sort of conditioned myself into thinking that most of them are comedies. It doesn’t always work to make the movies better, but at the very least it makes them more enjoyable. Warfare of Landmine is a prime example of “So Silly It’s Awesome”, and while the movie isn’t necessarily BAD, I’d definitely not recommend it for the acting, plot or cinematography. But Landmines… landmines are always exciting when they blow up bad guys.

——–

Dongfang Hong / The East is Red

This cover is red?

5. Dongfang Hong / The East is Red
Director: Wang Ping
Year: 1965
Cast:
Rating: 6.2

Summary:
The history of the People’s Republic of China from the start of the 20th century up to the Cultural Revolution… but as a musical stage play! Yes, the movie is literally one song and dance number after another, shot as a play within a movie.

Comments:
Honestly, I didn’t enjoy this that much, but I’m not a big fan of musicals. It’s a little absurd and of course full of communist propaganda, but it’s still an impressive production with nice scenes and pretty decent songs. This is by far the most unique propaganda film I’ve seen (seriously… a musical about communism), and it’s worth a watch if only because of that.

——–

Shokei no shima / Punishment Island

Shokei no shima / Punishment Island (1966)

I love covers that give absolutely no clues about the movie. Like this one

Director: Shinoda Masahiro
Writers: Ishihara Shintaro, Takeda Taijun
Date: 1966

Genre: Drama
Description: Revenge, exile, flashback, juvenile delinquent, penal colony

Cast: Nitta Akira, Mikuni Rentaro, Iwashita Shima, Sato kei, Komatsu Hosei, Tonoyama Taiji

Crew of note: Music by Takemitsu Toru

Runtime: 88 mins.
Color: Color
Trivia: Shinoda and Iwashita got married in 1967 after this film was released.

summary
Saburou, a man with a mysterious past, is on his way back to Kojima Island to look for Otake, a man with whom he bears a grudge. Through a series of flashbacks we discover his connection with the island and the man he is looking for, and why he has returned after 2 decades. There he meets Matsue, a bully from his past, Kuroki, an old teacher and Aya, a beautiful girl he once knew, before finally finding Otake.

review
If you like jidaigeki and yakuza eiga like me, then you’ve definitely heard of Sadojima (Nichiren was a famous exile there) or Abashiri Prison (of Abashiri bangai-chi fame, starring Takakura Ken) or a host of other nameless prison islands. The Japanese seem to enjoy throwing criminals into exile, and they even have a word for it: Shimanagashi (literally, island exile). Kojima, featured in this movie, is a fictional penal island for juvenile delinquents.

Shokei no shima / Punishment Island (1966)

They look so happy playing with a dead eel ;_;

It’s not hard to imagine why Saburou is returning to Kojima–the title is Punishment Island for cripe’s sake. And while it’s made clear from the very start that he’s there for some revengin’, it is the way Shinoda reveals Saburou’s tortured past through small, repetitive and overlapping flashbacks that makes this such a great movie. The plot develops slowly, almost painfully slow, as we feel Saburou’s escalating anxiety, almost a morbid excitement, that’s built up over years and years of waiting for the right time to come back. And once there, will he or won’t he?

The choice of having a totally anonymous actor in Nitta Akira to play the lead adds to the tension; his is a new face that we’ve never scene before, with strong, coarse features and an unknown past. The audience has nothing to recall about him even as an actor, and that mystery is a big part of what makes his character so compelling. His performance is chilling and intense; you can just imagine him being beaten and scarred as a child. Mikuni’s work as Otake is also brilliant as ever.

Shokei no shima / Punishment Island (1966)

Take note of that crutch. It will surprise you near the end

Last but not the least, the movie is stunning–which is pretty obvious given it’s Shinoda. Iwashita on a cliff with an undulating background; the long take at the end with a kanon statue on the table; the grayed and filthy children on the rocky hills; Kojima in the background as Saburou looks on from a boat; the many long takes and long shots; the isolation in every frame. An island is just a pile of rocks and yet Shinoda makes it seem so much more. There may be no walls and the ocean may seem traverse-able (how is this not a word?), but Saburou’s island of Kojima has kept him imprisoned even after 20 years.

Shokei no shima / Punishment Island (1966)

Kojima: a big big pile of rocks and murderin

conclusion
The way Shinoda stages scenes is a sight to behold. It is no exaggeration to say that the last major scene is one of Shinoda’s best, and perhaps it’s one of the earliest signs of his curiosity in using traditional performance art (Bunraku in Shinju: Ten no amijima; Kabuki in Buraikan; here just a stage play, and only really in the last scene) in his movies. This may not be the best place to start with Shinoda, but if you’ve seen his other films and enjoyed them, this will definitely be another blessing.

things to take note of
Amazing pictures of the island
The long shots
Isoooolaaaation

best moment
The last scene in the house and how amazing it is

why you should watch this
Another excellent Shinoda. That guy just never fails to impress me.

rating: 8.6

scorecard
Plot: C+
Cast: A
Cinematography: B+
Music: B
Entertainment: C+

similar movies, maybe:
Movies about islands and isolation? Uhm, Hadaka no shima / Naked Island?

Shang xue lu shang / The Story of Xiaoyan

Shang xue lu shang / The Story of Xiaoyan (2004)

Wo yao shang xue (written on the left) = I want to go to school. Wow an educational caption!

Director: Fang Gangliang
Writers: Zhao Dongling
Date: 2004

Genre: Drama, Comedy
Description: School, children, education, working student

Cast: Wu Xu, Ai Liya, Yang Shulin, Zhao Xue, Hu Zhixiao, Ren Huan, Guo Haowei

Crew of note:

Runtime: 91 mins.
Color: Color
Trivia: Based on a true story

summary
Wang Yan is a little girl in a little town in western China. Her school has just raised tuition from 20 yuan to 24 yuan and 80 cents, and unfortunately her family might not be able to afford to send her to school next semester. She figures that if she can earn it herself, she should be able to continue attending school. The little businesswoman works her way from eggs, to a pen, to a small lamb, to picking berries, all to earn enough money to go to school.

review
Like most, I hated school when I was a kid. Homework, boring classes, evil teachers, waking up early… aside from PE and lunch time (actually, basketball time), was there ever anything fun about school? Only the nerds ever wanted to go, and they were picked on relentlessly. Except during exams, then they were everyone’s best friends. I suppose when you live someplace where education is a basic and provided right, you end up taking it for granted. And maybe that’s why movies like Shang xue lu shang are alien enough to be unique and interesting at first glance, but also have the ability to feel familiar in its themes.

Shang xue lu shang / The Story of Xiaoyan (2004)

PE is awesome is one of those universal themes

That’s how movies like this become successful: it is set in a foreign land, in a strange culture, in a world we’ve never been to before, and yet the story, characters and themes are able to resonate deep within us. They make sense, sort of, even though the film is as foreign as the language they speak. Luckily, cinema seems to work in a language that we all understand, and Fang uses it well. He works many long and wide shots of the the terrain to frame Wang Yan’s struggle, but remembers to keep us close for dear moments. The music punctuates key scenes, but never feels pandering or manipulative.

The cast of characters that surround the main character also add to the film’s great charm. Dagua and Erguo are adorable, like most little brothers are; the groom-to-be is a hilariously thrifty businessman; the teacher is supportive but has problems of his own; and her mother, though she does not approve of her plans at first, eventually gives in. Wang Yan and the people around her are richly drawn and real.

Shang xue lu shang / The Story of Xiaoyan (2004)

A kid selling a blind man a lamb. Yes.

This is “Little Kid Overcoming Adversity” done right, and Wang Yan is the perfect protagonist for a movie like this. She is the best thing about the film, and even though the adversity she faces may not be especially severe or insurmountable, her positive attitude and hopefulness is welcome in a genre usually filled with tears. Unlike other movies that use sadsack children for quick sympathy and bathe their stories in that misguided “Depressing is Deep” mantra, Shang xue lu shang’s protagonist is optimistic and feisty while her story is lighthearted and a joy to watch. Her quest to earn that 24 and 80 is one part underdog story, one part meaningful, one part comedy, and 10 parts enjoyable. Okay maybe my math (and English) have gone down the drain, but you’ve never wanted to see a kid go to school more in your life.

conclusion
Okay so I probably can’t make a better conclusion than what I wrote in that last paragraph so I’m just gonna stop here and tell you to just read it again and go look for this movie. k?

Shang xue lu shang / The Story of Xiaoyan (2004)

Donald Trump with a cap instead of a toupe

things to take note of
Wang Yan’s optimism
Lack of melodrama and predictable life drama

best moment
“Shan!”
Dagua, Ergua and Wang Yan running around
Making moneys

why you should watch this
Best child-wants-to-go-to-school movie evar

rating: 8.2

scorecard
Plot: A
Cast: B+
Cinematography: B
Music: B
Entertainment: A

similar movies, maybe:
Not One Less? But that one sucks

5 Best Matsumoto Toshio Short Films

Matsumoto is best known for the film Bara no souretsu / Funeral Parade of Roses, a movie about Tokyo’s hidden gay subculture during the 1960s. His other notable film, Shura / Pandemonium is also highly regarded, and I’d consider it even better than Bara no souretsu. He was a prominent figure in 60s and 70s Japanese experimental cinema, directing over 30 shorts during this time, and is now a professor and dean at the Kyoto University of Art and Design. This is a list of his 5 best shorts.

Atman (1975)

Haha I bet you scrolled away from this pic didn't you

1. Atman
Year: 1975
Runtime: 11 mins.

Summary:
A man in a Noh demon mask and costume is kneeling on a bed of rocks. The camera pans around him, zooms in, zooms out. The colors change, the images flash, still shots of him flow into each other.

The Good Stuff:
– The dude in a Noh mask is freaky
– There is a growing sense of anxiety and thrill even though nothing really happens

The Best Stuff:
– Every shot, from every angle, looks fantastic
– The sequence of still shots combined creates a wonderful effect

——–

2. Haha-tachi / 母たち / Mothers
Year: 1967
Runtime: 40 mins.

Summary:
Short segments about motherhood from 3 different cultures: the West, Asia, and Africa.

The Good Stuff:
– Simple structure of showing one culture after another is effective

The Best Stuff:
– Frank and unsentimental look at motherhood

——–

Ishi no uta / 石の歌 / The Song of Stone (1963)

Rocks, rocks, and more rocks. Oh look, rocks!

3. Ishi no uta / 石の歌 / The Song of Stone
Year: 1963
Runtime: 25 mins.

Summary:
A documentary about stone and the miners who depend on it for their subsistence.

The Good Stuff:
– Camera movements while picturing photographs is interesting
– Music reminiscent of Takemitsu’s score for Suna no onna

The Best Stuff:
– Beautiful pictures of rocks and use of photographs

——–

Ki = Breathing (1980)

I told you it was freaky. Oh wait, pic comes before review oops!

4. Ki = Breathing
Year: 1980
Runtime: 30 mins.

Summary:
A kakejiku (Japanese hanging scroll) hangs in darkness and the camera enters its picture of trees and mist. There is a strange, eerie forest with a strange woman. More forests, mountains, a beach… and more bizarre images.

The Good Stuff:
– Thrilling, chilling, eerie… but in a good way?
– More similar to Terayama Shuji’s work than Matsumoto’s own, standing out from the rest
– Calm and stunning images, but kinda freaky

The Best Stuff:
– Wonderful music by Takemitsu Toru as usual
– Great use of sound

——–

5. Nishijin / 西陣 / The Weavers of Nishijin
Year: 1962
Runtime: 26 mins.

Summary:
A documentary about traditional weavers of Nishijin.

The Good Stuff:
– Very poignant narration
– An interesting subject even though we don’t learn that much about them

The Best Stuff:
– Weaving may never look this beautiful, probably Matsumoto’s best looking short

——–

Overall, his short films cover a diverse array of subjects each with their own unique visual style or concept. The above films are all worthy of seeing, even though you may not have any interest in experimental cinema (whatever the heck that is).

You can view them here.

Eburi manshi no yûga-na seikatsu / The Elegant Life of Mr. Everyman

Eburi manshi no yûga-na seikatsu / The Elegant Life of Mr. Everyman (1963)

The poster just screams most hilarious boring movie ever

Director: Okamoto Kihachi
Writers: Ide Toshiro, Yamaguchi Hitomi
Date: 1963

Genre: Drama, Comedy, Satire
Description: Salaryman, narration, docudrama

Cast: Kobayashi Keiju, Aratama Michiyo, Ehara Tatsuyoshi, Tachikawa Hiroshi, Tôno Eijirô, Nakamaru Tadao,

Crew of note:

Runtime: 103 mins.
Color: Black and White
Trivia:

summary
Eburi is a salaryman in Tokyo, living an ordinary life. He works at an ad agency as a writer, tends to talk nonstop when he drinks, and unconsciously aspires to become a real writer. One day, after having one too many drinks at a bar, he comes home having promised two editors the best story they’ve ever read, except he doesn’t remember he promised anything and doesn’t even know what to write! Eburi, and his otherwise boring, average, uninteresting life, run through the filter of his perceptive and babbling brain, becomes the topic of his soon-to-be popular semi-autobiographical novel.

review
The salaryman is modern Japan’s version of the Edo period’s lowly samurai footsoldier classes (yeah there were many subclasses within samurai). Stuck in a dead end job, with no opportunities for anything better, and not many options other than what they already have, they usually lead very boring, meaningless lives. At the very least, samurai had infrequent battles, wars and clan conflict to make things exciting, and to give them a glimmer of hope in achieving anything worthwhile. It also makes for enjoyable action movies for audiences. But what do salarymen have? Well, in Eburi’s case, he gets to write a story about his boring, meaningless life. And what the audience gets is a movie about him writing about his boring, meaningless life.

Eburi manshi no yûga-na seikatsu / The Elegant Life of Mr. Everyman (1963)

The boring face or boredom

Okay, that sounds a LOT worse than it is, but that’s really what the Eburi manshi… is about. On paper it sounds like this should be the most boring movie imaginable: it’s about a boring guy, with his boring voice narrating his boring life about his boring book. Yet if you pay attention to just how boring everything is–I mean, really LISTEN to what Eburi is saying about himself and about his life–it actually is quite fascinating.

Eburi manshi no yûga-na seikatsu / The Elegant Life of Mr. Everyman (1963)

Oh Eburi, you and your silly silly life

And its the dialogue, the narration, that truly shines, along with Kobayashi’s delivery. He says SO MUCH and talks about so many things so fluidly that it’s hard to imagine that these were not Kobayashi’s own thoughts, and that he was not actually drunk while being filmed. The observations he makes are incredibly detailed to the point of nonsense and his descriptions of everyday Tokyo life are so full of vibrancy and energy that he sounds like he’s hallucinating. How could this man, living this life (I’ve used the word boring so many times sheesh) have such a rich and powerful vision of this city? When he describes his life it’s almost as if every moment is magical, every event important. But he’s just another faceless, ordinary salaryman, right?

Well, maybe he isn’t, and maybe behind every seemingly common man is an interesting story. Maybe all of us are like Eburi, and all of us have led fascinating lives worth ink on a page. Or maybe we’re all just delusional. Huh.

Eburi manshi no yûga-na seikatsu / The Elegant Life of Mr. Everyman (1963)

..And the predator has his prey trapped, backed against the corner.. and he TALKS. Nonstop. About his mom

conclusion
Eburi proves that the salaryman is an interesting and worthwhile subject despite the dead-end life that one lives. In fact, it probably is because of his seemingly meaningless (to everyone but those around him) existence that his life is given meaning in the context of cinema and [insert related academic field here]. Hats off to Okamoto for another brilliant satire. I still don’t want to become a corporate slave though.

things to take note of
The many, many jokes and descriptions
The narration

best moment
Eburi is drunk and talks nonstop. Really.

why you should watch this
This is Kobayashi Keiju’s best work as a leading man

rating: 8.6

scorecard
Plot: A
Cast: A
Cinematography: B
Music: B
Entertainment: B

similar movies, maybe:
Other deadpan comedies/satires from Okamoto, maybe Satsujin kyo jidai / Age of Assassins or Nikudan / Human Bullet

genres

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