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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.

——–

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

Dou niu / Cow

Dou niu / Cow (2009)

Oh wait I think it's a comedy. With a cow. And bombs.

Director: Guan Hu
Writers: Guan Hu
Date: 2009

Genre: Drama, War
Description: Anti-war, survival, man and beast, Sino-Japanese War, rural China

Cast: Huang Bo, Ni Yan, Gao Hu, Hua Zi… and a large cow.

Crew of note:

Runtime: 110 mins.
Color: Color
Trivia: Huang Bo’s Mandarin is difficult to understand because he is from the province of Shandong, where the film was shot.

summary
Niu’er, a slightly slow, slightly odd farmer in a remote Shandong town, is assigned the task of taking care of the town’s brand new 8th Route Army-provided Foreign Cow which produces more milk than their regular cows. He resents the task, but when he wakes up one day to find himself and the cow alone in the village, their tale of survival and friendship begins.

Dou niu / Cow (2009)

Is it still friendship when the cow gets a little frisky?

review
At first I thought this was going to be a movie about a dude and his cow, in some small town, hanging out and doing nothing. I was sort of right, but I didn’t expect there to be explosions. Lots of explosions. And while that may be an exaggeration, I honestly didn’t expect this to be a movie about war (I tend to decide to watch movies without knowing anything about them). Come on, seriously. The cover has the face of a cow at a funny angle and a bunch of funny-faced peasants. And it’s about a COW. I don’t think you can blame me for being (pleasantly) surprised–which tends to happen really often, huh?

Dou niu / Cow (2009)

What?! I thought we were having beef for dinner?

After watching hours upon hours of Chinese Communist propaganda films from the 50s and 60s, I’d sort of gotten tired of the Sino-Japanese war. It had been a long time since seeing Guizi lai le, and really strong, poignant, intelligent war films from China just didn’t seem very common. Perhaps if I’d known this was going to be about the same war, I would have passed it off for later viewing. Luckily I didn’t, and decided to see it. And while it may not be as great as the aforementioned film, it comes pretty damn close. That’s a huge compliment, and I wouldn’t mind if you stopped reading right at that sentence to go look for the movie. Seriously stop reading and just get it.

The film’s greatest strength is its two stars, Huang Bo and the cow. It might seem a bit frivolous to say this, but their chemistry is fantastic. Credit has to go to Huang for his slightly deranged, out-of-touch, and tender portrayal of Niu’er, though I can understand that some people may be turned off by perceived over-acting, or simply because they can’t connect with such a weirdo protagonist. But it’s his strange character that makes his relationship with “Jiu” (the cow, formerly the name of his wife) work so damn well, and without it the film’s charm is lost. Their story of survival against the odds may not be epic in terms of distance or scope or body count, but the way they are able to transcend this interspecies barrier towards real friendship in the midst or war is a colossal achievement.

conclusion
War sucks, everyone knows that. But after the 100th movie about the same sucky war, with the same themes, same plots, and same ideas, the movies themselves tend to get sucky as well. That’s why when a film with a genuinely unique premise such as Dou niu comes around, you gotta take notice. Full of charm, affection, and pathos, this one is definitely not sucky. War still sucks though.

things to take note of
Huang Bo’s weird accent
Huang Bo is weird
The silliness of it all
The different groups of people they encounter

Dou niu / Cow (2009)

Huang Bo is watching you not watching his movie. Tsk.

best moment
Up in the mountains, oh
A man and a cow is actually really sweet

why you should watch this
Best movie about a cow ever made? Possibly!

rating: 8.2

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

similar movies, maybe:
Guizi lai le / Devils in the Doorstep
Other black comedies set during war

Lang tao sha / Waves Washing the Sand

Lang tao sha / Waves Washing the Sand (1936)

Not on the island: food

Director: Wu Yonggang
Writers: Wu Yonggang (uncertain)
Date: 1936

Genre: Drama
Description: Criminals and cops, good people, different circumstances yield different results, change of fortune, tragedy, a hard life

Cast: Jin Yan, Zhang Zhizhi (imdB doesn’t list him in the other movies I’ve seen with him, so I’m not sure if this is him)

Crew of note:

Runtime: 70 mins.
Color: Black and White
Trivia:

summary
A sailor comes home from a voyage to find his wife with another man. Their argument escalates, and the other man dies. A detective arrives to solve the case, and goes to the ends of the Earth to track him down and bring him to justice.

review
I was laughing while writing that summary, because it sounds more like a Hollywood blockbuster than a great Chinese drama. That really is the premise though, and from it we get one of my favorites from this age.

The focus of this film is not so much the chase, but the characters involved in it. In fact, the case itself is rather uneventful, and takes place over several years; not exactly the makings of an action flick. By focusing on the characters though, Wu sets up a great dynamic for their eventually meeting. Without all the characterization, without showing the long and arduous path towards their conjoined fates, the movie’s conclusion would just not be as effective.

I was able to find a review of this film that focuses more on its technical aspects, and I don’t think I can do much better than it. It has spoilers though, so be warned. Clickity-click.

While that review focused on camera, framing, narrative structure, etc, what I was most impressed with was the meaning of Wu’s tale. The reversal of fortunes, the final circumstances, and a great tragedy played out by two well-defined, well acted characters. Solidarity, unity, ironies of class struggle, how changes of circumstance can change one’s perspective… all of these themes can clearly be seen, especially in the illuminating ending.

conclusion
The film is artful, honest, and meaningful, three things that propaganda films (a norm at the time) rarely do in unison. This film has so far escaped even the cinephile public (lang tao sha 1936 yields only 86 non-redundant results, some of which contain little or no information), and that’s a shame. Great movies like this should never be left forgotten.

things to take note of
The two main characters– their backgrounds, personalities, fortunes, etc.
The sounds–wind, water, waves crashing, etc.

best moment
The opening scenes
The island

why you should watch this
One of the best plots, with an intelligent proposition
Wu Yonggang might be my favorite Chinese director from the silent era

rating: 8.5

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

similar movies, maybe:
Reminds me of Sun Yu’s “Huoshan Qingxie / Loving Blood of the Volcano” for some reason

Xixiang ji / Romance of the Western Chamber

Xixiang ji / Romance of the Western Chamber (1927)

Yes, adding naval battles makes any film more interesting

Director: Yao Hou, Li Minwei
Writers: Wang Shifu (original play), Yao Hou (adaptation)
Date: 1927

Genre: Love Story
Description: Love story, scholar dupes the bandits, calling reinforcements, proving one’s worth

Cast: Ge Cejiang, Hu Chichang, Lam Cho-cho, Li Dandan, Zhu Yaoting

Crew of note:

Runtime: 50 mins.
Color: Black and White
Trivia: Based on the famous play by Wang Shifu, written during the Yuan dynasty

summary
Zhang is a young scholar who enters a temple to learn. He meets Yingying, a girl who is famous for her beauty, and they quickly form a bond. Love at first sight and all that cheezy stuff. Unlucky for them, because Sun, a ruthless bandit leader, is outside with a master plan to kidnap Yingying and make her his wife (or worse!). Trapped between a bandit attack and a mother unwilling to marry her daughter off, Zhang must find a way to defeat the horde and prove himself worthy of Yingying’s hand in marriage.

review
Although based on the famous play, I was expecting it to be a boring romance since all the naughtybits would have to be omitted. Another drama from the silent era, yawn yawn.

It was a pleasant surprise that this was, in fact, closer to an action-comedy movie than a cheezy love story. Yes, of course the love story between Zhang and Yingying remains the center of the movie, but there is enough action, witty dialogue and odd circumstances to keep things interesting. The elaborate battle sequences, with complete period armor and weapons, is very well coordinated for 1927, if a little redundant. They really went all out to complete this period piece, and Yao and Li are able to recreate the Tang dynasty effectively with their sets.

The story itself is quite simple: Zhang must win Yingying’s hand in marriage. However, he isn’t Superman or Brad Pitt, so he must use what he has to save the day. No, he isn’t secretly a kung fu master, and he doesn’t suddenly know how to throw kame-hame-ha’s. He just uses his brain and calligraphy brush and finds a simple solution. Just like the story: simple yet effective. Probably a good lesson for 1927 too: even nerds can get hot chicks.

conclusion
There is nothing too specific to recommend about this film, other than the fact that it’s good. Great sets, great costumes, and a good adaptation that follows the original’s story while making it interesting for audiences of the time, and even today. If you can find this film, watch it. We’re lucky it survived.

things to take note of
The intertitles, I guess
Great costumes and gear

best moment
The raid on the temple
The weirdest duel in history

why you should watch this
A GIANT MOPIT/CALLIGRAPHY BRUSH!
Interesting fight sequence, one of the few you’ll see (or find relatively easily) from this era
Old movies are always interesting

rating: 7.8

scorecard
Plot: C+ (based on a classic, but the movie’s too short)
Cast: C+
Cinematography: B
Music: C+
Entertainment: B+

similar movies, maybe:
For films in the same era, I’m not quite sure. But this film is one of the great-great-grandads of wuxiapian, I think, sharing similarities with King Hu’s influential “A Touch of Zen” and other romanticky action flicks, and all the way up to the “Hero”s and “House of Flying Daggers”es of recent times. No wire-fu yet, of course.

genres

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