Forty years ago, during China's Cultural Revolution, traditional opera was banned and replaced by propagandistic works known as Yang Ban Xi. Yan Ting Yuen's documentary, "Yang Ban Xi -- The Eight Model Works," explores the decade these extravaganzas ruled the country's stages and movie screens and the nostalgic pull they maintain for some people.
The model works, championed by Mao Tse-tung's wife, Jiang Qing, were broad, brightly colored spectacles that extolled the virtues of the worker and the ideology of Mao. Brandishing titles such as "Red Women's Detachment" and "Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy," the revolutionary operas featured singing and dancing farmers and soldiers with scary smiles frozen on their faces. Though more than a dozen of the works were created, the eight referred to in the title became the canon, regularly performed on stage and filmed -- virtually the only entertainment allowed until 1976 when the Gang of Four, including Jiang Qing, were arrested.
The performers became huge stars and are still recognized, but after 1976 many were prohibited from acting because of their association with Yang Ban Xi. Most of Yuen's film focuses on profiling some of these people, including Xue Qinghua, a ballet dancer who achieved stardom as the lead in "Red Women's Detachment." After the revolution she saw her career curtailed and she had to work as a seamstress.
The clips from the filmed versions are amazing -- Rodgers and Hammerstein channeled through Stalin (or vice versa) -- and the even more kitschy, contemporary disco/hip-hop renditions of the songs have their guilty-pleasure value. However, the extensive interviews with participants and citizens who experienced the works are unfortunately distanced from any historical or contemporary context. Individually, their stories are interesting, but overall, the film lacks cohesion and a true point of view. Further muddling the film's meaning is a voice-over attributed to Jiang Qing, which we learn at the end is fictionalized.
`Yang Ban Xi -- The Eight Model Works'
MPAA rating: Unrated
A Shadow Distribution release. Writer-director Yan Ting Yuen. Producer Hetty Naaijkens-Retel Helmrich. Cinematographer Edwin Verstegen. Editor Stefan Kamp. Music Zhao Wei. In Mandarin with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.
At Laemmle's Music Hall, 9036 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, (310) 274-6869.