It is better to let half of the people die so that the other half can eat their fill.
— Mao Zedong
Tian Zhuangzhuang’s The Blue Kite is both an intimate story about the everyday life of a family, and the story of The Great Leap Forward and The Cultural Revolution in China. What is miraculous about the film is how we feel the madness of that time in Chinese history (literally: madness), while rarely leaving the small community where the family lives. The film takes place in a two-block section of Beijing called Dry Well Lane. Great events outside the lane impact daily lives: the opening scene shows a young couple about to get married when the news comes over the radio that Stalin has died. Their wedding has to be postponed for 10 days. One of the old ladies in the community murmurs, “Who is this Stalin person?” When the couple do get married, they stand before a poster of Mao Zedong. The Blue Kite is filled with reminders like that of how much the state infiltrated people’s lives.
But these people do not seem downtrodden or cowed in the beginning of the film. The marriage ceremony, between Lin (Liping Lü) and Shaolong (Pu Quanxin) is a joyous occasion. Their families are thrilled, the two love one another (the scene of their wedding night where he hoists her up on his back and twirls her around until she is dizzy is moving and sweet), and while the marriage ceremony includes a group singing of a revolutionary patriotic song, what is in the hearts of those present is personal, grateful, and happy. The fever of revolutionary madness has not started to rise, although there are chilling signs of what is to come. For the most part, they live their lives in peace with their neighbors, the children play outside, getting into mischief, people share food and gossip. They don’t have much, but the community is a caring one, bound together by tradition and family.
Lin and Shaolong have a child, nicknamed Tietou (it is he who narrates the film), and he is played by a series of extraordinary child actors, natural and unselfconscious. Tietou seems like a real child: he has tantrums, he gets into everything, he cries, he is totally lovable and yet there are times when Lin is exasperated: “You little troublemaker!”
Lin is a teacher at a primary school and Shaolong is a librarian. The extended family, grandmothers and uncles and aunts, are all highly involved in Tietou’s life. We can see how things are starting to shift. We hear radio broadcasts in the background, and we see posters on all walls exhorting the people to “rectify” their views, to submit to Party discipline. Unlike other films portraying revolutions and crackdowns, like, say, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, or, Reds, there are no scenes with massive crowds undulating across giant squares holding posters and banners. The Blue Kite always remains intimate. The revolutionary committees who march around, banging drums, and handing out orders from the leadership are neighbors. There’s a confrontation with the landlord of the small block of buildings where Lin and Shaolong live. All property is to be confiscated by the State, no more private ownership. The landlady, upset, says that her property is already owned by the State, and she has lowered the rents, and she has done everything she is supposed to do. “All righty then, thank you, have a great day” is basically the response, although that will change, devastatingly, over the course of the film. The revolution eats its young, as we know. Once that ball starts rolling, it is very difficult to stop, and the series of purges of those who do not hold “correct” beliefs is no less awful just because it is predictable.
And, as happened in Stalin’s Russia, every citizen becomes complicit in The Terror. That was part of the “success” of the revolution (if you think like Stalin, that is), because it incorporated guilt, shame, and shared experience. It is easier to dominate citizens if their collective spirits are broken. So: it is your revolutionary duty to report on those you suspect to be harboring counter-revolutionary views, or “Rightist” views, or whatever view is out of favor. If you do NOT report it, then you will find yourself suspect as well. Even if it’s your father, your wife, your child. Russia made a national hero out of a young boy who denounced his parents in the 1930s.
We start to see suspicions erupt in the family in The Blue Kite. Lin’s sister (Xiaoying Song) is a True Believer, and everything she says sounds canned and programmed: “This is the beauty of socialism … we have teachers and students working in factories now!” When her brother snarks, “Yes, and the metal they make is only good for scrap ..” she warns him to never speak like that outside of the house.
The Rectification Project (revolutions have a tendency to make normal words with positive connotations sound frightening: Purge. Cleanse. Rectify. Correct.) is a Communist Party directive: companies and individuals need to report on counter-revolutionary activity in their midst. There are self-criticism ceremonies in schools and workplaces, where individuals are “encouraged” to stand in front of their colleagues and admit where their thinking is wrong. The watching group responds in kind, hurling abuse at the person in front of them. It’s horrible. Shaolong’s boss at the library gathers together all of his employees and says, “I’m not saying we have a quota to reach …” A chilling comment, because obviously there is an unspoken quota: If you say that your workplace is completely free of incorrect attitudes, you will be seen as automatically suspect. During this company meeting, Shaolong leaves for a second to go to the bathroom. When he returns to the room, he is faced with a silent group of staring people. Later, Lin says to her husband, “Why did you choose that moment to go to the toilet?”
Shaolong is denounced, and sent to a labor camp (“far far away”, narrates Tietou). He dies in the labor camp, a “tree fell on him”. His body is never returned. We remember that warm smiling man, whirling around his new bride, the man who made a blue kite for his young son. Yes, the blue kite got caught in the tree, but Tietou remembers that kite. He barely remembers his father, but he knows that that kite was representative of his father’s love for him.
The program of agricultural collectivization is a brutal one, and every citizen is now required to work the fields at the huge collectivized farms for three months of the year. Lin volunteers, leaving Tietou at home in the care of his grandparents and his kindly Uncle Li (Xuejian Li). We also get to know another uncle, who was in the Army until his poor eyesight blocked him from advancement. He is dating a young woman, Zhu Ying, (Hong Zhang) a rising star in the Party, an actress working in a propaganda arm of the Party. She is a sweet woman, smiling and open, and nervous about meeting Lin (“I wanted to meet you first, because he talks about you so much”). Trouble arises when she balks at one of her duties: she is required to “dance” with the upper echelon Party members at various events. If I am reading between the lines correctly, “dance” is another word for “have sex with”. She is reprimanded in a frightening scene with her superior, who, up until that point, has been one of her champions, applauding her realistic acting in the revolutionary dramas they put on, and treating her like an equal. She is given a warning. Later, in a quiet scene with Lin, over the sleeping Tietou, Zhu Ying whispers to Lin, “I’m so scared.” She senses that something is coming. She’s right. She is arrested (and given no reason why) and is led out of her place of work in handcuffs as her co-workers (former friends) jeer and cheer.
The next time we see her she is in prison, when her boyfriend, now wearing dark glasses to protect his eyes, goes to visit her. She is no longer the pretty pigtailed woman wearing a spic-and-span khaki uniform, holding Tietou and trying to make a good impression on her potential new family. Her hair is messy, she has dark circles under her eyes, and she speaks in a low defeated voice, saying to the man she loved, “Please forget about me.”
Lin marries “Uncle Li”, who has been such a good friend and support to her and Tietou following Shaolong’s death. He had worked with Shaolong at the library and is tormented with guilt because he had written up a report denouncing some of his colleagues, Shaolong being one of them. He confesses this one night to Lin, and Lin says she already knew, Shaolong told her, and also told her to not blame Li for his actions. A moment of forgiveness and grace in an unforgiving world.
The Blue Kite is seen through the eyes of Tietou, and so much of his life is taken up with childhood concerns (albeit important to him): the totally unfair fact that his parents won’t get him the firecracker he wants for New Year, beating up a pal at school for making a derogatory comment about his mother, acting out when he doesn’t get his way. He says matter-of-factly, in his narration, “We made it through the three years with no food …”
The Cultural Revolution begins to enter its lunatic phase. A teacher is dragged out of Tietou’s school by her own students, and her hair is cut off in front of the cheering crowd of children. Tietou tells his mother proudly, “I spat at her.” Lin slaps him across the face. The landlady of Dry Well Lane is punished for “hoarding” flour from her rations to make a full pot of dumplings. A neighbor turned her in. Uncle Li collapses and dies of malnutrition. Education is no longer valued. The entire nation is now forced to work hard labor, in factories, camps, and fields, to get the country industrialized. Tietou thinks it’s kind of fun, because school is no longer about boring learning. They just mess around all day, and throw rocks through the school windows. Lin marries again, this time not for love, but to protect herself and her child. She is set up by her True Believer sister (who, naturally, by the end of the film, has found herself on the chopping block – we must never forget that Madame Defarge loses her head in the end, too) with a wealthy party official. A gleaming car comes to pick up Lin and Tietou at Dry Well Lane. It is the first time either of them have been in a car.
Up until this point, the action has rarely left Dry Well Lane. Dry Well Lane has dirt paths, small houses, and is an enclosed community. People cook in huge pots on their front stoops. It is in Beijing, but you would never know it was a modern world. Seeing Lin and Tietou suddenly living in a huge house, with a curving stairwell and bay windows, is jarring. It’s interesting, too: in Dry Well Lane, whatever work you did was valued, because it added to the common good. This is not a comment on socialism, but a comment on being surrounded by extended family. Women cooked, men fixed things, it all worked. Perhaps it is a sentimental view of gender roles, but it was so much a part of the early sections of the film that I didn’t notice it. But suddenly, in the big house, Lin is relegated to drudgery status. Tietou refers to her, his own mother, as “the maid”. While it may be nice to have a big house, and amenities like running water, it’s seen as a pretty poor tradeoff. Lin and Tietou are removed from the comforting blanket of grandmothers and kindly uncles who stop by to fix things. They are isolated.
A strength of the film, though, and perhaps the most stinging critique of the Cultural Revolution, is that there are no Bad Guys here. The Bad Guy is the Revolution itself. (There’s a reason why The Blue Kite was banned in China.) The Revolution forces otherwise moral people to behave in an irrational and immoral manner, spitting on their teachers, turning in their loved ones, and hardening up their softer impulses. The party official Lin marries is a cold guy, perhaps, not openly loving, and it is a marriage of convenience for both of them. But in a key scene, he confides in Lin and Tietou that he has been denounced at work and he feels an arrest is imminent. Therefore, they must divorce, so that Lin and Tietou will be saved from the taint of their association with him. He is a moral man. He says, “I’ve grown fond of the kid, even though he doesn’t like me. But it’s okay. Kids are like that.”
The acting in Blue Kite is wonderful, and there were moments when I found myself thinking, “God. I really like all of these people.” This may seem like a trite observation, but it is one of the reasons why the film works, and why it is so cumulatively devastating. It focuses on the small, the everyday rhythms of one family, and the long relentless fingers of political reality, touching them all. It is difficult at times to get a grasp on just how harrowing certain historical situations were, the Great Terror in Russia in the 1930s (and many people in the West are still in denial about how bad it was. Robert Conquest, when his book The Great Terror was re-issued with confirmation that he had UNDER-estimated the numbers of those killed, wanted to re-title the book this), and the Cultural Revolution of the late 50s and 60s in China. The numbers are daunting and don’t seem real. Entire cultures went berserk. Revolutions like that act like a fever, they need to burn themselves out. But in the burning-out process, millions of people died.
Stalin famously said, “One death is a tragedy; one million is a statistic.”
The Blue Kite works because when the family we have come to care about is ripped apart, we understand that the experience we are seeing, specific as it is, is representative of the “statistic” of “millions” of others. We weep for Lin and Uncle Li and Tietou and Shaolong. We have gotten to know them. In this sense, The Blue Kite is an enormously angry and political film, although the overall tone is not angry at all. It’s tender, mournful, nostalgic (for childhood, for family), and observant of human behavior and relationships. The film understands that a little boy who has lost his father will always keep a torn blue kite hanging over his bed, even though he doesn’t remember his father who made the kite, even though he is now a teenager, and maybe too old for kites.
When the world goes insane, it is good to remember that there was once a time, not too long ago, when flying a kite with your father was possible, when it was possible to be happy.