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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

——–

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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

Guizi lai le / Devils on the Doorstep

Guizi lai le / Devils on the Doorstep (2000)

Devil? That looks like a very sissy stance to me

Director: Jiang Wen
Writers: Jiang Wen
Date: 2000

Genre: War / Drama
Description: War is tragedy, Japanese occupation in China, prisoners of war, ravages of war, satire, black comedy, inhumanity, doing what other people tell you

Cast: Jiang Wen, Teruyuki Kagawa, Ding Yuan, Jiang Hongbo, etc.

Crew of note: Gu Changwei, who also worked on Farewell My Concubine and Red Sorghum, is the cinematographer

Runtime: 162 mins.
Color: BW
Trivia: Jiang Wen was banned from filmmaking for 7 years by the Chinese Government because this movie wasn’t patriotic enough

summary
Dasan is asked by a mysterious man to keep two prisoners of war, a translator and a Japanese solder, played by Jiang Yihong and Kagawa Teruyuki respectively, in their town until he returns for them. The poor town, under the supervision of a Japanese base close by, is thrown into confusion regarding what to do with the prisoners: should they keep them in secret, or should they tell the Japanese?

review
It is not difficult to find a review for this film, especially since it kicked ass at Cannes. In fact, it’ll probably serve you better to look for a professional review instead of reading my uninspired attempts at convincing you to watch this. Actually, I’d known about this film for a while before I finally decided to watch it. The phrases “anti-war”, “harrowing depiction”, and “black and white” just didn’t seem to pique my interest. I was expecting bullets, dying comrades, and tons of depression.

To my surprise, the movie turned out to be very light, warm, and amusing most of the time, despite its premise. It is difficult to think of Dasan as anything but a comedic character as you watch, and the phrases mentioned above will rarely appear appropriate. But this truly is a movie that condemns war, that shows how people behave during war. The nationalities aren’t important. The setting (which could be anywhere as the town is isolated and disconnected from the rest of the world) is not important. You simply have to see what happens.

The filmmaking and acting is topnotch. The pictures are pretty. Personally, I don’t remember the music, but that doesn’t take anything away. And I should stop here, with an intentionally vague couple of paragraphs. You should watch this film without reading any spoilers, and know as little about it as possible. It will make for a better experience.

conclusion
Okay, I concede that the movie is definitely anti-Japanese, maybe excessively so despite how it tries to accurately depict the war. However, can it really be said that this film is pro-Chinese? In fact, pro anything? Unlike many war films (I won’t point in any direction), there is no hero here, and it is simply about the tragedy that is war. This is an anti-war film.

things to take note of
Color?
How hilarious Dasan is
The message, I guess
The villagers’ interactions

best moment
Whenever they’re trying to keep everything a secret, specifically the part with a chicken

why you should watch this
It will make you laugh, even when you shouldn’t
Jiang Wen
This is a great anti-war film

rating: 9.35

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

similar movies, maybe:
Other anti-war movies?
Biruma no tategoto / The Burmese Harp by Ichikawa Kon
Nobi / Fires on the Plain by Ichikawa Kon
Okay, those aren’t really similar to Guizi lai le except that they’re also two of the best anti-war films ever

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