Little by little, the Bamboo Curtain is at last rising on the Chinese cinema.
A current series downtown at the Grande is showing us a China coming to terms with the hard lessons of the Cultural Revolution, and a China Film Week was held recently at UCLA.
Most impressive of all, however, has been the recent UCLA Film Archives' tribute to Xie Jin, the director who is widely regarded as China's greatest working director and is best known for two films he made before the Cultural Revolution, "The Red Detachment ofWomen" (1960) and "Two Stage Sisters" (1964).
The 10 films shown revealed Xie Jin to be a sophisticated stylist who ranges easily between the intimate and the epic--sometimes within the same film. He's a committed revolutionary, but his concern is for people more than messages, and he's not at all afraid to criticize his country's political bureaucracy.
In their simplicity and beauty, Xie Jin's films arrive like a breath of fresh air, and so does the man himself.
As someone who grew up on Hollywood films of the '30s and '40s--he once even wrote fan letters to Ingrid Bergman and Greer Garson--Xie Jin lamented the unavailability of good American films in China. (Recently, five American films--"Kramer Vs. Kramer," "The Turning Point," "Coal Miner's Daughter," "On Golden Pond" and "Star Wars"--did play limited engagements in China's major cities, but for all their success, they barely tapped the country's avid moviegoing public.)
"I really regret there hasn't been more of an exchange of movies between America and China," he said in an interview at UCLA, speaking through an interpreter. "Chinese really want to see American films, but they are so expensive that there's not much hope we can spend our hard currency on films when we need it for Boeing airplanes. China has no idea of who the great American stars are today.
"When I visited the Hollywood studios, I talked about Sino-American relations until I was blue in the face, but all that those executives were interested in was money. But what about culture! We have such a good exchange of films with the Japanese--and we had a hateful relationship with them for many, many years. In this I think the Japanese may be smarter than the Americans. Americans are very naive, very myopic when they can see only as far as a dollar.
"I have never been to America before, and my impressions of it have come only from films. That passion--that emotion--that you can experience from a film can exceed the value of a dollar. When I visited sound stages where I was told President Reagan had worked--nobody seemed to remember any of the films he'd made there--I said, 'You keep talking about Reagan and keep basking in his glory, but why don't you get him to sign a paper allowing us to see American films?' If I met Reagan, I'd ask him myself!"
Xie (pronounced "She-ye") Jin spoke with a twinkle in his eye and a smile on his face, determined to be humorous about an issue he regards as serious. Although 62, he looks much younger and has a scholarly, quizzical manner. From childhood he loved literature and films, which he said he had really always hoped to make.
"I started seeing American films about the time I was in junior high. I saw lots of Charlie Chaplin and John Ford. I loved 'Waterloo Bridge.' The films I particularly enjoyed dealt with an individual's struggle to accomplish something within society (a description that could fit virtually all of Xie Jin's films). I see everywhere 'Casablanca' posters, and it makes me very nostalgic. I saw that film in my first year of college.
"In literature, I would say I have been influenced by the Chinese classic 'Dream of the Red Chamber' and by foreign writers like Tolstoy, Victor Hugo and Chekhov. They all grew up in such different circumstances, but I think they all speak a universal language. What I appreciate now is that I can see a connection between foreign films and literature and films I've made myself. At the same time, I feel one must reach out to one's own roots."
In virtually all of Xie Jin's films, the heroine rather than the hero is the central figure, and all these can be regarded as strongly feminist. The heroine may be a slave girl who becomes a pioneering Red Army soldier (as in "The Red Detachment of Women") or a modern bureaucrat risking the ruin of her own marriage to see that her first love, a victim of the Cultural Revolution, is properly rehabilitated (as in "The Legend of Tianyun Mountain"), or an embittered soldier who learns to love the children left in her reluctant charge during the 1949 Communist revolution ("Ah, Cradle"). Explaining this concern, Xie Jin says that he draws both from literature and his own experience.