Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

October 5, 2013

A Touch of Sin

Filed under: China,Film — louisproyect @ 7:44 pm

A scene from “A Touch of Sin”

For the longest time I have believed that the greatest filmmakers produce works that are both quintessential expressions of their national idiom and universal statements about the human condition. Satyajit Ray’s India, Akira Kurosawa’s Japan, and Ousmane Sembene’s Senegal spring to mind but so does the John Ford western.

With the arrival of Jia Zhangke’s “A Touch of Sin” at the Lincoln Plaza and IFC in New York yesterday, the third film I have seen by the Chinese director who has kept a sharp focus on social inequality throughout his career, it is reassuring  that a new golden age of cinema might be returning with Jia at the helm. His work is distinctly Chinese without the slightest concession to perceived “cross-over” marketing dictates, but universal in its compassion for working people. It is both puzzling and reassuring to see that this film could have been in made in censorious China today even if it benefits to a large degree from Japanese co-production. If China’s Communist Party has succumbed to the “one percent” values that are being protested everywhere in the world, it is noteworthy that a writer/director like Jia still adheres to the egalitarian ethos that motivated hundreds of millions of peasants and workers to rise up against a heartless and unjust order in the mid-20th century.

“A Touch of Sin” is a four-part narrative based on real-life outbursts of violence in China, all touched off by bitter class resentments.

  • A middle-aged coalminer returns to a village where he once worked in order to file a complaint against the Communist Party official who used his connections to become the owner of a privatized mine. The new boss comes to work in a Maserati while the villagers have never received a penny for the benefits they were promised when the mine became private property. When the miner approaches the boss in the midst of a welcoming procession as he steps off his private jet with his complaint, a bodyguard attacks him with a shovel after the boss leaves him in the lurch. The boss’s cronies begin mocking him as Mr. Golf after he leaves the hospital, finding the idea that his head was used as a golf ball a big joke. This and other offenses lead to the miner taking his revenge.
  • A young man who makes his living as an armed robber still adheres to traditional values, sending his grandmother money on a regular basis even if it is ill-gained.
  • A young woman has been forced by rural poverty to take a job as a receptionist at a sauna that serves as a front for a brothel. When a local thug insist that she give him a “massage”, she turns him away saying that she is only a receptionist. When he begins beating her, she defends her honor in the only manner left to her—through violence.
  • Another young man is working in one of China’s typical sweatshops. When a co-worker asks to borrow his smart phone to look something up, a conversation about how to use it leads to the borrower accidentally cutting his hand on a machine. The young man is told by his boss that it his responsibility to pay for the man’s lost wages during his two-week sick leave. His response is to leave the job and search ever more desperately for a way to survive in an economy where a lack of skills and connections turn you into a virtual slave.

Unlike China’s costume dramas that are geared to the international market replete with CGI trick shots of swordsmen floating through the air, “A Touch of Sin” is brutally realistic, shot on location in some of China’s most ugly industrial centers. Despite this, Jia, the consummate visual poet, turns every shot into something that will stick with you long after the film has ended. It is as if Antonioni decided to make films in places like Buffalo or Pittsburgh in the mid 1950s.

Despite the grim character of the tales, there is a dark comedy that pervades throughout. Like many of the class-conscious directors in China today, Jia loves to orchestrate dialog between family members or co-workers that bring out their saltiness and quick wit. If you are looking for dialog that advances what the critics call character development, you won’t find it in “A Touch of Sin”. In a way, there is no need for it. The miner does not have to explain what sets him on his homicidal path.

While watching “A Touch of Sin”, I made a mental note to say something about the naturalism that is found among all directors who belong to the “Sixth Generation”, a post-90s school of filmmaking in China that is strongly influenced by Italian neo-realism. The naturalism is not just an expression of life as it is really lived but also a throwback to the philosophy embodied in the novels of Emile Zola or Theodore Dreiser, even if the “Sixth Generation” has never read widely in this genre.

In the typical naturalist fiction, the main character is like a moth trapped in a spider’s web made up of capitalist society’s economic forces of coercion. The novel ends badly (not so much tragically since there was never a fall from on high) but inevitably just as is the case for millions of workers or poor farmers in China today with its miracle economy.

In the press notes, Jia describes his intention:

This film is about four deaths, four incidents which actually happened in China in recent years: three murders and one suicide. These incidents are well-known to people throughout China. They happened in Shanxi, Chongqing, Hubei and Guangdong – that is, from the north to the south, spanning much of the country.

I wanted to use these news reports to build a comprehensive portrait of life in contemporary China. China is still changing rapidly, in a way that makes the country look more prosperous than before. But many people face personal crises because of the uneven spread of wealth across the country and the vast disparities between the rich and the poor. Individual people can be stripped of their dignity at any time. Violence is increasing. It’s clear that resorting to violence is the quickest and most direct way that the weak can try to restore their lost dignity.

“A Touch of Sin” is opening throughout the United States over the next few months. Check http://www.atouchofsin.com/see.html to see if it is showing locally. I also recommend Jia Zhangke’s 2008 narrative film “Still Life” (http://louisproyect.org/2008/01/17/still-life/) and 2009 documentary “24 City” (http://louisproyect.org/2009/05/30/24-city/), both of which are class-conscious indictments of inequality in China. I have also heard that “The World”, a 2004 indictment of consumerism, is prime Jia Zhangke. All are available as DVD’s from Netflix.

July 17, 2013

Cognitive dissonance

Filed under: China,Film — louisproyect @ 1:16 am

Walking out from the press screening after the conclusion of Johnny To’s great new movie “Drug War”, I ran into an Asian woman about 50 years old or so who said she’d like to ask me a question. I said shoot.

Her: What did you think of the movie?

Me: I loved it.

Her: Really?

Me: Absolutely. Johnny To is the greatest.

Her: What is your name?

Me: Why do you need my name?

Her: I am a reporter with Xinhua.

Me: Oh. (I said as I was writing down my name). That’s Louis Proyect. I’m on the Internet. The Unrepentant Marxist.

She looked at me after I identified myself as if I had two heads. Seeing the expression on her face, I added: “You know, Karl Marx.”

The cognitive dissonance was so thick you could cut it with a knife. To start with, this is a movie that is nominally Chinese but it is really a Hong Kong product that plays by its own rules. A typical mainland movie is a costume drama about wicked Emperors being challenged by lesser nobility. Hong Kong movies, by comparison, are ultra-violent policiers cynical to the bone. Meanwhile, it is the same capitalist system that the two areas are united under. So, if this was her first Hong Kong movie, it must have been a jarring experience. But on top of that, what do you make of a Marxist who is passionate about Hong Kong gangster movies? Life is strange.

Trailer for “Drug War”:

July 2, 2013

New York Asian Film Festival 2013 (China)

Filed under: China,Film — louisproyect @ 10:30 pm

Even if it were possible for me to take in all forty-two films that are part of the 2013 New York Asian Film Festival, I doubt that any could surpass Wang Jing’s “Feng Shui” for its skillful combination of social commentary with human drama. It plays tomorrow at the Walter Reade Theater at 8pm and I strongly urge my readers to see it. The work it is closest to in spirit and in artistic realization is Iranian director Asghar Farhadi’s 2011 “A Separation”, which also examines the breakdown of a marriage and its effect on children against the backdrop of a society undergoing severe socioeconomic strains.

Feng shui is the Chinese word for wind-water and describes a system of occult beliefs similar to astrology. By examining the patterns of sand or stones thrown randomly on the ground, one could divine the future, mainly by avoiding bad luck. One of its main uses was to decide where to build a house. Unfortunately for the family that has moved into a high-rise as the film begins, the building has bad feng shui according to a woman who is the best friend of the lead female character Li Baoli (Yan Bingyan). Baoli scoffs at this suggestion even as things have taken a turn for the worse on the very day that she, her husband Ma Xuewu (Jiao Gang), and young son Xiaobao (Li Xian) have moved in. The two-bedroom apartment is twice the size of their old one and stocked with modern fixtures, so what could go wrong? The bad feng shui, however, is more a function of Baoli’s sadistic behavior toward her husband than the building’s alignment.

When the movers tell Baoli that they have to charge a higher fee than originally quoted, she explodes at them. In a constant state of ill humor, she has almost a Tourette’s like tendency to swear at people (men in particular) for the slightest offence. Her favorite epithet is dogfucker.

Ma Xuewu makes the mistake of offering the movers a cigarette, a glass of soda, and a small tip. He is not aware that Baoli has spotted them on the balcony of the new apartment. Even worse, she overhears the movers telling her husband that they pity him for being married to a woman who has so little respect for him. She then bursts out onto the balcony and curses out her husband and the movers like a drill instructor in a very bad mood.

That night, as they are about to tuck themselves into bed, Xuewu tells Baoli that he wants a divorce. He then grabs some blankets and goes into the living room to sleep on the sofa.

The breakdown of the marriage takes place against the high-tension background of economic insecurity and the son competing against other students to get top grades. With both husband and wife employed, their hopes for Xiaobao getting into a good university and moving up the ranks of some profession seem well-placed. But as the conflict between husband and wife escalates, the son threatens to become collateral damage.

While watching the film, I was reminded of Balzac. Like his typical novel focused on the irreconcilable differences between family members in a rapidly growing and class-differentiated Paris, director Jing Wang and screenwriter Nan Wu hearken back to the golden age of naturalism, fully understanding that its affinity for story-telling and compelling characters has never gone out of style.

It would be hard to imagine “Feng Shui” achieving the level of a masterpiece as it has without the performance of Bingyan Yan as the wife and mother Baoli. She manages to convey both the repulsiveness of the woman as well as her inner strengths. In the final two-thirds of the movie, she becomes a yoke-bearer, a primitive form of transporting luggage around the city that belongs to China’s “coolie” past. It is undoubtedly the filmmakers’ way of saying that as long as social conditions in China remain so constrained by the forces of production, it will be impossible for people to live free and happy lives.

“Beijing Blues” will be screened at 4:30pm on Tuesday, July 9th. It is a dryly comic cop movie whose main character Zhang Huiling (a real life cop played by Lixian Zhang) is the polar opposite of all the kung-fu fighting, sharp-shooting characters played by Jackie Chan or Jet Li.

Detective Zhang is a doughy-faced, out-of-shape man in early middle age whose main job is keeping swindlers and pickpockets off the street rather than taking on sadistic gangsters with armies of henchmen or North Korean spies.

The film is documentary-like with reenactments of the typical bust, reminiscent of what I have seen with my own eyes as New York cops sweep down Lexington Avenue to confiscate the bootleg versions of Gucci bags being sold by unlicensed Senegalese vendors.

Zhang is fatalistic about his job. He jails the perpetrators, fully expecting them to be back on the street in a couple of days. The best parts of the film pit Zhang against the men and women in custody who argue that they have no alternative, having lost their jobs or never being able to find one in the first place. You have no doubt that he understands their point of view even if he must put them away.

May 10, 2013

Wang Bing: cinematic bard of the Chinese working-class and peasantry

Filed under: China,Film — louisproyect @ 6:32 pm

In trying to explain to my wife the importance of Wang Bing’s tripartite, 9 hour documentary “West of the Tracks”, I described it as the equivalent of a time machine transporting a video camera back to 18th century Britain and into the hands of someone like Thomas Gray or William Blake—poets appalled by the rise of capitalism. In 1999 the 32-year-old film school graduate, went to Shenyang, a heavily industrialized city, with a small rented DV camera in order to capture a moment in time when the “iron rice bowl” would become a thing of the past. While the film itself is about as unadorned as the videos that I tend to make, their impact is overwhelming as Chinese workers confront their imminent demise as benefactors of one of the 20th century’s most powerful revolutions. Now they were becoming the equivalent of British self-sustaining small farmers dispossessed by the enclosure acts.

“West of the Tracks” is not easy to come by. I was able to borrow a copy from Columbia University’s well-stocked film library, but it is worth tracking down. But for those fortunate enough to be in close proximity to Manhattan’s Anthology Film Archives, I strongly recommend Wang Bing’s latest—“Three Sisters”—that opens today. It follows his long-form, cinema vérité approach but it is much more polished, even to the point of being described as an object of beauty, even as it depicts an ugly scenario, namely the bitter fortunes of impoverished peasants left out of China’s “economic miracle”.

The first part of “West of the Tracks” is aptly titled “Rust” and takes place almost entirely in the massive zinc and copper smelting plants in Shenyang as workers go about their jobs. Much of the action takes place in break rooms where they play cards or Mahjong and speculate about the pending bankruptcy of the state-owned factories that have provided them with health care, lunch, free housing, pensions and other benefits. Like their counterparts in places like Detroit or Cleveland, these are workers who are rapidly becoming redundant. The strain on their psyches is palpable as the opening scene depicts. A pointless argument in the break room leads a drunken worker to fisticuffs with those he has been annoying. As the fight winds down, he confesses that it is entirely his fault. He should not have gotten drunk.

Wang Bing’s use of cinema vérité functions both as a way of capturing lives in their messy, quotidian essence as well as a way of avoiding censorship. Just about every Chinese documentary filmmaker avoids making Michael Moore type agitprop since that would risk leading to the same fate as artist Ai Weiwei. As a gimmick that reminds me a bit of Alfred Hitchcock’s cameo appearance in most of his films, Wang Bing tips off his audience that it is still a movie and not reality. In part three of “West of the Tracks”, he shows a junk collector at his home near the rail yards picking up his pet dog Maomao, holding him up to the camera, and announcing: “Look at the camera, Maomao. Let them take your picture.” In “Three Sisters”, we see the father of the three young girls, who are the subjects of the documentary, get on a bus that will take him to a nearby city in search of a factory job. The bus driver then asks him for a ticket. He replies that he has already given him one. “Not yours”, the bus driver says, “one for the guy with the camera.”

Part two is titled “Remnants” and depicts the forced relocation of Shenyang’s workers who are losing their company housing to demolition. In every case, they are not only getting smaller flats that will force at least one family member to be left out; they are also required to pay a hefty price for being given that privilege. With most of the workers already a victim of layoffs, much of the film shows them passing time in their old neighborhood as they reflect on the raw deal they have gotten. There is no organized resistance shown in Wang Bing’s film since that would risk censorship or worse but the film gives you a good idea why 180,000 reported incidents of organized protests took place in 2010.

“Rails”, the final part, is about railroad workers whose trains operate in and about Shenyang’s industrial yards. As is the case in part one, most of the action takes place on the job and in break rooms but unlike part one the workers are less stressed out since they will likely not be impacted by plant closings. Although they refer to each other as “comrade”, there is little evidence of the workers thinking in broad political terms. As long as they have a job and the money to spend on prostitutes or Karaoke bars, they will accept the new system that is unfolding. The most moving part of “Rails” involves the aforementioned junk dealer who makes his rounds in the rail yards looking for discarded metal to sell in local marketplaces. One night some cops arrest him for an unauthorized collection, leaving his young son to suffer what amounts to a nervous breakdown. It is a graphic reminder of the cruelty of those with the power to enforce capitalist law and order in the new China.

As my regular readers probably know by now, my emphasis is on politics rather than style. That being said, it is worth noting what “Jump Cut”, a magazine geared to the byways of America’s film schools, had to say:

The four shots are taken from a camera mounted on the front of a small goods train as it traverses and penetrates Tiexi District’s factories and residential areas.  Snowflakes stick to the lens as if to one’s eyelashes, and this snow sticking, along with the occasional small jerk given to the camera by the old railroad tracks, serves to make the cinematography tangible, vulnerable, almost human.  Thus the camera does not just observe or record; it stares, it braves, it searches, and it salvages.

If much of the film’s stylistic power is arguably unintentional, there is little doubt that Wang Bing’s latest is a finely wrought work of art.

“Three Sisters” is shot in a remote and mountainous farming village where three young girls are fending for themselves in what amounts to a hut. Their mother abandoned the family long ago and the father has been forced to look for work in the nearest city.

Yingying is 10 and amounts to the head of the household that consists of her, her 6-year-old sister Zhenzhen, and Fenfen, the youngest who is 4. Like “West of the Tracks”, the 153-minute film is made up of the quotidian existence of humble people, in this instance not only humble but also highly vulnerable. Yingying is always picking lice out of her sibling’s hair while all three have coughs that alarmingly never go away.

Their grandfather lives nearby and tries to look after them as best he can but he has his own meager existence to look after. The children have little to look forward to outside of a visit from their father who brings them new clothes from the city or to festivals in the village that provide a good meal for the hungry.

Notwithstanding the obvious suffering, there is also much inspiration in watching three children trying to shore up each other against all odds. Yingying has almost unbelievable fortitude for a 10-year-old.

The village is perpetually cloaked in a fog that lends it the aura of a Bronte novel. When Yingying goes to a nearby mountaintop to look after her grandfather’s flock of sheep, you hear a constant rumbling as if in an approaching storm. It takes a while to figure out that the sound is that of the unrelenting wind rather than thunder. Wang Bing had the bright idea to remove the windscreen from his microphone to achieve this dramatic effect.

According to a 2008 World Bank report, 948 million people live on less than $5 per day in China. One imagines that if the three children had $4.99 per day to survive on, they would feel as if they won the lottery.

Recently it was reported that Mao Zedong’s granddaughter Kong Dongmei is worth about $815 million, placing her 242nd on Chinese magazine New Fortune’s 500 Rich List for 2013. Those in China, who share director Wang Bing’s values, call these Forbes type lists “sha zhu bang” or “kill pig list.

In March 1927 Mao Zedong wrote a “Report on an Investigation of the Peasant Movement in Hunan” that stated:

In a very short time, in China’s central, southern and northern provinces, several hundred million peasants will rise like a mighty storm, like a hurricane, a force so swift and violent that no power, however great, will be able to hold it back. They will smash all the trammels that bind them and rush forward along the road to liberation. They will sweep all the imperialists, warlords, corrupt officials, local tyrants and evil gentry into their graves. Every revolutionary party and every revolutionary comrade will be put to the test, to be accepted or rejected as they decide. There are three alternatives. To march at their head and lead them? To trail behind them, gesticulating and criticizing? Or to stand in their way and oppose them? Every Chinese is free to choose, but events will force you to make the choice quickly.

Surely as the conditions described in Wang Bing’s documentaries continue, there will be another “mighty storm” that will eventually sweep away the likes of Mao’s granddaughter. Ironically, despite the lack of a revolutionary party, it is a good sign that documentary filmmakers are serving as a kind of cultural vanguard exposing the rot at the heart of this vicious system. Sooner or later, the workers and peasants will mobilize as well to make another revolution to sweep “corrupt officials, local tyrants and evil gentry into their graves” once again.

April 12, 2013

American Meat; The Revolutionary

Filed under: China,Film,food — louisproyect @ 9:32 pm

Opening today:

“American Meat” at the Cinema Village

“The Revolutionary” at the Quad

A meat diet contained in an almost ready state the most essential ingredients required by the organism for its metabolism. By shortening the time required for digestion, it also shortened the other vegetative bodily processes that correspond to those of plant life, and thus gained further time, material and desire for the active manifestation of animal life proper. And the farther man in the making moved from the vegetable kingdom the higher he rose above the animal.

–Frederick Engels, The Part played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man

When my old friend Doug Henwood, America’s most brilliant left economist, posted this item on Facebook, I am sure he did it with a mischievous grin on his face since so many people on the left equate meat eating with imperialism. Since Doug cooks a mean meatball, he and other meat-eating leftists would appreciate “American Meat”, a fascinating documentary that makes the case for organic, grass-fed livestock and poultry. I should add that even vegetarians would get a lot out of the film since it deals with attempts to resolve a fundamental crisis in agriculture identified by Karl Marx:

If small-scale landownership creates a class of barbarians standing half outside society, combining all the crudity of primitive social forms with all the torments and misery of civilized countries, large landed property undermines labor-power in the final sphere to which its indigenous energy flees, and where it is stored up as a reserve fund for renewing the vital power of the nation, on the land itself. Large-scale industry and industrially pursued large-scale agriculture have the same effect.

–Karl Marx, Capital V. 3, Chapter 47, Genesis of Capitalist Ground-Rent

The indigenous energy referred to by Marx is a bunch of manure—literally. The lack of fertilizer was the environmental crisis of the mid-1800s, just as global warming is today. So desperate farmers were for fertilizer that the bones of dead soldiers were considered suitable input for fertilizer. The crisis also led to the “guano wars” in Latin America.

When Fritz Haber, a German scientist born into a Hasidic family, invented chemical based fertilizers in 1918, the crisis appeared to be solved. Henceforth, you did not have to worry about keeping livestock and poultry in close proximity to crops as a source of natural fertilizer. Industrial farming could now be launched on a scientific basis that Marx and Engels never dreamed about. As so happens with such “magic bullets”, the end result was a nightmare.

As the film explains, industrial livestock and poultry production is bad for your health, cruel to the animals, and a waste of precious resources—particularly the petrochemicals that are essential to large-scale production of the sort that Perdue symbolizes.

The film reveals that the major poultry companies own the creatures that farmers raise to maturity. They are dropped off in massive containers and then picked up after they are ready to be slaughtered and packaged. The poultry farmer is under intense pressure to maintain effective cost control since the Taylorist production methods require vast amounts of capital, including air-conditioning, computers, antibiotics and the like.

What comes off the assembly line goes directly to your Walmart and has the merit of being affordable—at least at first blush. It turns out that we are footing the costs of such cheap food by subsidizing the corn and soybean production that makes industrial production possible. What we get from it might be cheap but tasteless.

Grass-fed poultry and livestock is not only a pleasure to eat; it is also beneficial for the soil. Among the farms visited in the film, the art of combining different sorts of animals like chickens and pigs into a kind of organically linked cycle is stunning to behold. The question, of course, is how this can replace the system we operate under now. Can small farms ever compete economically with the Perdues of the world?

The film argues that they can through various strategies, including the direct to market approach embodied by the Union Square Greenmarket in New York. However, for most people of modest means a $25 per pound chicken is out of he question. There have been modest steps toward matching up such people with the suppliers but it has not made that much of a dent as a substitute for Perdue’s.

Among the answers put forward by the film is the growing influence of outfits like Whole Foods and Chipotle’s that are based on grass-fed meat grown by small farmers. Unfortunately, the film almost becomes a free commercial for the two corporations toward its conclusion. It is unfortunate that the film does not reflect on their track record on matters not directly related to what you eat.

In an article titled “Mother Nature, Make Me Rich”, Marxist economist Michael Yates gives the low-down on Steve Ells, who makes an appearance in “American Meat”. It turns out that Ells treats his workers like dogs:

The company has come under scrutiny by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which has questioned the identification documents of hundreds of Chipotle employees.  Restaurants in Minnesota and Virginia have responded with mass and sudden firings, possibly in violation of state laws and, according to the workers, without paying wages due to them.  Workers, labor unions, and support groups have also said that Chipotle had often knowingly hired undocumented immigrants (even allowing them to change their social security numbers!), was using the ICE actions to get rid of senior and more highly paid employees (it takes three years of work to qualify for a one-week vacation), and had actually hired back some of the fired workers as new hires.

Furthermore, there is some question about how healthful the food is, notwithstanding the company’s public relations efforts (including its fiscal backing of the film.) Michael quotes from Wikipedia:

A Center for Science in the Public Interest report stated that Chipotle’s burritos contain over 1,000 calories, which is nearly equivalent to two meals’ worth of food.  MSNBC Health placed the burritos on their list of the “20 Worst Foods in America” because of their high caloric content and high sodium.  When a burrito with carnitas, rice, vegetables, cheese, guacamole, and salsa was compared with a typical Big Mac, the burrito had more fat, cholesterol, carbohydrates, and sodium than the Big Mac, and the burrito had more protein and fiber.

What good does grass-fed beef do you when it is slathered in bad cholesterol?

At least they haven’t taken money from Whole Foods (as far as I know), even though it gives one of its executives plenty of time at the mike. Here’s what the Washington Post had to say about these bastards on August 10, 2008:

Whole Foods Market pulled fresh ground beef from all of its stores Friday, becoming the latest retailer affected by an E. coli outbreak traced to Nebraska Beef, one of the nation’s largest meatpackers. It’s the second outbreak linked to the processor in as many months.

Even if Whole Foods did a better job of checking where their meat was coming from, there’s no evidence that its CEO John Mackey, an obnoxious libertarian, would ever do anything to treat his workers better. A Whole Foods employee spilled the beans to Socialist Workers newspaper on January 28th of this year:

Although it markets itself as a caring health foods store, Whole Foods doesn’t care about the welfare of its own employees.

In the last year, the company has instituted speedups through different policies store to store. In one store, all full-time non-managerial employees had their hours reduced to 30 hours per week. Management cited a decrease in sales numbers, but when sales picked back up, they continued to operate with the reduced hours schedule, resulting in a 25 percent pay cut for full-time employees.

In other stores, management has begun an “incentive” program for cashiers, rewarding increases in items rung up per minute (IPM) and stressing that all cashiers should be increasing their IPM to 30. The average IPM for most cashiers, when ringing at a comfortable and sustainable pace, is 14 to 20 IPM.

Mackey might be selling free-range chickens but he treats his workers much more like Perdue chickens, commodities to be exploited.

While I can recommend “American Meat” as a good presentation of the contradictions of industrial farming and possible prototypes for an alternative mode of production, I am afraid that like most films I have seen in this genre it does not face up to the class interests that make organic agriculture a possibility. The two-party system is owned lock, stock and barrel by agribusiness operating in partnership with big pharma, the arms industry, megabanks and other pillars of American capitalism.

Once we put control of the means of production into the hands of the people who produce the commodities we depend on, then we can talk about truly alternative food production. Until then, the solutions will be partial and somewhat utopian. (That being said, I will make a trip down to Union Square tomorrow to get some organic vegetables and meat.)

Sidney Rittenberg is the quintessential anti-Zelig. Like Woody Allen’s character, he shows up in key moments of Chinese history next to all the big-time players but unlike Zelig is in a commanding position, most of all in the Cultural Revolution.

He was born to a wealthy Jewish family in Charleston, South Carolina in 1921 and became involved with the labor movement while at the University of North Carolina, a long-time hotbed of the radical movement not unlike CCNY. Another famous red alumnus was the late Junius Scales, another scion of an upper-class family.

When he was in the army, he got sent to language school to learn Chinese. Afterwards he was sent to China just as the war was ending. With his radical sympathies, he was inspired to seek out Mao Zedong who was organizing his Red Army in Yan’an province for an all-out assault on the KMT army.

Upon meeting the 24-year-old Rittenberg, Mao invited him to take a senior position at Radio Peking, making sure that the CP’s communications with the West were conveyed properly in English. Rittenberg agreed to stay on but only on one condition—that he be accepted as a member of the Communist Party. That turned out to be a double-edged sword since this experience brought him terrible misery even as it offered him the most fulfilling moments of his life. Even though I and most of my veteran radical readers never reached such a lofty status, we surely can identify with him as he relates his being ground down as a member of what amounted to the largest socialist cult in history—Mao’s Communist Party.

Just four years after going to work at Radio Peking at a salary larger than Mao’s, Stalin sent Mao a letter accusing Rittenberg of being a spy. Rittenberg was offered the choice of being sent back to the U.S. immediately or going to prison in China. He chose China and then spent 6 years in solitary confinement until the Chinese brass decided he wasn’t a spy after all.

Oddly enough, the only other people besides Stalin who raise the possibility that Rittenberg was a spook was the Financial Times:

A feeling that Rittenberg must, surely, have been a deep-cover CIA agent still surfaces occasionally in the US. “There were actually no western agents in China in my time,” he says. “But former intelligence people are convinced to this day that I was an agent under deep cover. I get asked quite probing questions even today by retired CIA people. When I deny it, they say, ‘Wow, you’re good.’ I always considered myself a representative of the genuine American people, in the tradition of revolutionaries like Tom Paine. That’s why I always dressed as an American. I wanted to be an American friend of China, not Chinese.”

I find the CIA accusation hard to believe. Why would an asset such as Rittenberg be ordered to spend 6 years in a Chinese prison when his talents could have been deployed elsewhere? I think it is much more plausible that he did everything he did out of a conviction that he was a participant in the 20th century’s greatest anti-imperialist revolution. I did many stupid and self-destructive things for a much more marginal movement.

Rittenberg is still alive, having moved to the U.S. after his second imprisonment, this time during the Cultural Revolution and once again for being a foreign spy. Now in his 90s, he is an amazingly articulate man capable of deep insights about the Chinese revolution and the personal disasters stemming from both his idealism and the ambitions many of China’s top politicos harbored and still do.

March 15, 2013

Notes on China’s New Left

Filed under: aging,China,journalism — louisproyect @ 9:50 pm

Recent articles about China in Harper’s and N+1 remind me that there will always be a need for print publications, as long as they can deliver in-depth and trenchant analysis of the sort that is harder to find on the web. Before discussing the articles, it would be worth saying a word or two about the two magazines.

Harper’s has been around since June 1850 and is the second-oldest continuously published monthly magazine in the U.S. after Scientific American. I took out a subscription in the early 80s around the same time I took out one to the Nation. Eventually I grew tired of the tepid liberalism of the Nation and did not renew my subscription. Harper’s can best be described as close to Ralph Nader type politics with a strong patrician streak that was most pronounced under the editorship of Lewis Lapham who I adored. Roger Hodge, whose book on Obama, “The Mendacity of Hope”, is a great read despite its odd affinity for Thomas Jefferson, replaced Lapham in 2003. Hodge got on publisher John MacArthur’s wrong side and was fired in 2010. MacArthur is heir to a family fortune and apparently runs the magazine in a rather imperious fashion. Despite that, I find it a great read and especially value the monthly “difficult” crossword puzzles.

N+1 is published 3 times a year out of Brooklyn and has ‘tude to spare. Benjamin Kunkel, who has written for The Nation and Dissent, two mainstays of left-liberalism, was one of the founding editors. In an N+1 article commemorating Christopher Hitchens, Kunkel began:

In high school I was, like many incipient writers, too high-minded and self-involved to take any serious notice of the world as described by journalists. Wars, elections, and revolutions were trivial events beside the development of literature and my part within it. Later, as a college freshman, when I first discovered politics, it was on a summit of vertiginous abstraction.

I suppose I never got a paying job as a journalist because putting together a phrase like “a summit of vertiginous abstraction” is simply beyond me. My goal in writing has always been to express myself in exactly the same way that I speak to people. I suppose having read Ezra Pound’s “ABC of Reading” back in 1961 also had something to do with it: “Great literature is simply language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree.”

“The Unraveling of Bo Xilai: China loses a populist star” appears in the March 2013 Harper’s. Written by Lauren Hilgers who lives in Shanghai, it—like most Harper’s articles—is behind a paywall. My feeling is that as long as such articles continue to appear in Harper’s, I will continue to be a subscriber. I had been following the Bo Xilai saga in the N.Y. Times but found it all totally confusing. I knew that he was one of China’s richest men and that his wife had been charged with the murder of a British citizen but the politics—you couldn’t figure out a thing from the Times.

Thanks to Ms. Hilgers, I finally have an idea of what was going on. Apparently, Bo was orienting to China’s “New Left”, a odd term for a group of people who express nostalgia for Mao. She writes:

Bo Xilai offered a potential solution— one that didn’t require real political reform. He relied on his populist appeal, his revolutionary bloodline, and an utter disregard for the law. He was undoubtedly corrupt, but in Chongqing, as in Dalian, he rolled out policies with something for everyone. Bo orchestrated a return to communist values, sending out mass text messages with his favorite Mao quotes. He promoted the singing of “red songs” and banned all primetime advertising on Chongqing’s television station, encouraging its executives to run patriotic films instead. Bo’s “red culture” campaign turned him into a figurehead for China’s New Left, a movement that lionizes Mao and looks to return to what adherents think of as a simpler, less corrupt era. Bo planted trees (Xilai trees), built low-income housing, and attracted investment. At the same time, Bo’s “Chongqing model” encouraged a greater economic role for China’s state-owned enterprises. His anti-mafia campaign, promoted with the slogan “Strike the black,” helped him wipe out his opponents and establish an extensive surveillance network— but it also helped Bo beef up the police force, making the city safer. Bo cast himself as a champion of China’s poor, a crusader against corruption, greed, and inequality.

Hilgers visited the Utopia Bookstore, an outpost of Maoist values and discovered broad support for Bo there:

The people at Utopia bookstore were Bo’s target audience. They wanted to be engaged; they worried about the fate of their country and were hungry for more information, whatever the source. And Bo, more than other Chinese politicians, was available. For them, a little accessibility went a long way. The regular old lady listed her concerns: Capitalism had made some people happy, but it had made some people rich and some people poor. It had also made people corrupt. Leaders weren’t concerned with equality or the poor. China bowed too easily to America’s demands. And Bo Xilai, she said, was the only leader addressing her concerns. “We all pretty much support Bo Xilai here,” a visiting volunteer from Shandong told me. He was a little bit suspicious of me and asked to be identified as a “reader.”

Bo Xilai was recently expelled from the CCP and his wife was arrested for murder. Clearly the party leaders were getting nervous about pretenders to the throne who were striking a chord in the restive population.

As I have pointed out to comrades on Marxmail recently, the Chinese boom appears to be coming to an end and the country faces a real estate bubble of biblical proportions. Under such conditions, having a Mao-spouting millionaire presents problems even if he doesn’t mean a word of it.

Nikil Saval’s N+1 article is titled “The Long Eighties” and deals with the problems facing the democrats in a country whose rulers seem to have stifled the mass movement through a combination of repression and state-managed economic growth.

It is a very probing and well-researched article that includes some insights into the affection the New Left had for a corrupt and demagogic millionaire like Bo Xilai:

Meanwhile the Chinese “New Left”—a loose assemblage of intellectuals that formed around the journal Dushu (Readings)—occupies the opposite position. The “New Left” is highly opposed to the country’s economic direction, yet its members are not only not in jail, but in some cases socially affiliated with the government. Its leading figure, Beijing-based intellectual historian and social theorist Wang Hui, has criticized intellectuals like Liu for remaining fundamentally unopposed to the neoliberal direction of the country. Wang argues that while China has the opportunity to craft an “alternative modernity,” a form of social democracy opposed to the creeping of market logic into every corner of existence, Chinese liberals simply accept a teleology of modernity that basically resembles America—a model that is visibly failing. Not that Wang is in fact against markets. On the contrary, following Braudel’s distinction between markets and capitalism, Wang argues that “a critique of an actual market society and its crises cannot be equated with repudiation of the mechanisms of market competition, as the principal task of critical intellectuals is to disclose the antimarket mechanisms within market society and to bring to bear a democratic and socialized conception of markets to counter the antimarket logic of actual market society.” Wang espouses, in other words, a kind of market socialism, which would preserve competition on a local, small-scale level, in contrast to China’s rather ostentatious collusion of government and business.

Unlike Liu, Wang has managed to stay aboveground and out of prison. (Though he is no longer editor-in-chief, Readings was and is published with state approval.) He teaches frequently in the US, and outside China his writing—unfailingly intelligent, though dense and laborious where Liu is fleet and lucid—has been best received among left-wing English and American academics, who are naturally skeptical of the liberals. (The liberals, meanwhile, attract the attention of every-one else.) Part of the reason Wang stays out of jail is the attitude he and his comrades display toward the political scene. Where Liu sees generalized abjection and totalitarianism, Wang and his collaborators see hope for criticism and a margin of openness in the political atmosphere. But they may be kidding themselves. The recent government has been in the habit of adopting “New Left” rhetoric while doing little to prosecute its aims. High-placed officials speak unctuously about equality and the continuing project of socialism while silently (but blatantly) cultivating their relations with factory owners and financiers.

While I generally find N+1’s articles compelling (except for the fiction that like most fiction leaves me cold), I do wish they would lay off the Young Turk posturing that can be found in a section at the front of the magazine called “The Intellectual Situation” that is obsessed with exposing well-established magazines like Harper’s, the Atlantic Monthly, and the Paris Review as “old fogies”. They have a particular animus toward Harper’s. You can actually read the latest “The Intellectual Situation” here: http://nplusonemag.com/the-intellectual-situation-issue-15.

While the Atlantic hustles women for page views, Harper’s can maintain a courtly, old-fashioned affect and a decorous remove from reality. It remains almost entirely male and for all practical purposes appears exclusively in print, where it pursues its passion for solving arithmetic problems, arranging newspaper clippings, and recounting logistically complicated vacat

Apparently the editor’s disparaging of people running Harper’s or other such moldy figs as “aged” annoys me to no end. After all, I am 68 but do not listen to Guy Lombardo or wear diapers. Some other old fogey got so fed up with some other such business they wrote N+1 a letter giving it a piece of its mind. I don’t know if it will do any good. You know how full of themselves young people can be.

AGAINST AGEISM

Dear Editors, I am surprised by the ageism of “Big Babies,” in a magazine that otherwise seems conscious of social injustice and the power of language. The authors adopt old age as a metaphor for the stupid and repugnant, as women long were used as a metaphor for evil. Adjectives such as “old” and “retired” are thrown around as insults; “senilely” is meant to ridicule. The image of old people with “suit sleeves flopping” (yes, many of our wrists become skinny and bony, as the authors’ may, should they live to old age) is taken to be patently repellent. I thought that was the worst until I came upon the sneering depiction of the “Autocrat of the Senior Center” in a “second childhood” in which “someone wipes his spills.” The dis-abilities often associated with old age, “confusion and impotence” and being “forgetful,” are invoked to demean, while “Napoleon in Depends” is presented as the ultimate insult. It’s not the old who are disgusting but this rhetoric. The authors condemn misogyny and the war on women but happily enlist in the war on the old and disabled. I wish on those who wrote that section a long old age in which they—without, I hope, confusion, impotence, or Depends, but don’t bet on it—will have to slowly chew, swallow, and expel their indigestible words.

—Alix Kates Shulman

February 23, 2013

11 Flowers

Filed under: China,Film — louisproyect @ 10:06 pm

As I contemplate the sorry parade of slop being considered for Academy Awards tomorrow night (chief among them “Argo”, “Zero Dark Thirty”, “Lincoln”, and “Django Unchained”), I consider myself fortunate to live in New York where an art theater circuit provides support for something like Wang Xiao-Shuai‘s “11 Flowers”. Opening yesterday at the Quad Cinema, this mixture of a coming-of-age tale and commentary on the Cultural Revolution puts Hollywood to shame. Frankly, the idea of the Chinese military hacking American computers to steal this doddering imperialist nation’s intellectual property would seem to be a joke if Hollywood was factored in.

The eponymous flowers refer to a still life that 11 year old Wang Han (Liu Wenquing) is learning to paint from his father, a trained artist anxious to pass along the same skills to his son. But the son’s real passion is for leading his classmates in morning calisthenics, an ability coveted much more than artistry in such a regimented society. When young Wang learns that calisthenics leaders are required to wear a new white shirt, his mother tells him that they lack the funds. When he begins to sulk, she slaps and berates him.

This, the first instance of violence in the film, is part of the social fabric being ripped to shreds in the town with the low-intensity-warfare waged by Red Guards on the local “conservatives” spilling into the family circle. After Wang’s mother scrapes together the money for a new shirt, he is met by disaster. While playing down by the riverbanks, a man grabs his shirt and runs into a thicket of trees overlooking the river. Desperate to retrieve the shirt, Wang runs after him no matter the risks. When he catches up to him, he discovers that the shirt is being used to stanch the bleeding from a wound the man received fleeing the cops.

Eventually we discover that he is the son of an artist just like his father who has been banished from Shanghai for his “petty bourgeois deviations”. After the local chieftain of the Revolutionary Guards has raped his sister, he takes the law into his own hands and kills him.

Throughout the film you can see skirmishes between gangs of men on either side in the Cultural Revolution. The film does not attempt to provide a documentary-like explanation of the issues but is content to tell the story of how that upheaval conducted in the name of the class struggle poisoned human relationships throughout the country.

In one of the most illuminating scenes in this inspired film, Wang’s father has returned home with his  head bloodied, a souvenir of a visit to a respected art professor who has also been banished to the boondocks. This is the gift bestowed upon him by a gang of Red Guards who were determined to punish the art professor for promoting “decadent” art.

The accusation does have a basis in fact as Wang’s father reveals a treasure that the art professor has bequeathed to his son. It is a collection of impressionist reproductions of the sort that can be purchased for a couple of dollars each in a museum store. For a nation that is anxious to purge every shred of “bourgeois” civilization, the reproductions become a challenge to national security.

Wang’s father explains the importance of Monet to him, saying that he was the first artist to abandon the studio and go directly out to see nature as it is without preconceptions. As you sit watching this extraordinarily beautiful film, you will understand that director Wang Xiao-Shuai must have incorporated these insights early in his career. He comes close to achieving the same intensity through his camera that Monet did through his palette.

Wang Xiao-Shuai is a member of the “sixth generation” of Chinese filmmakers, a reference to the post-1990s current that used low-budget “indie” techniques such as digital cameras matched to a neorealist esthetic, in other words the very type of film this reviewer treasures. Many of these filmmakers have run into heavy state censorship or are prevented from making films altogether. This is frequently a function of them presenting what amounts to a radical critique of Chinese crony capitalism found in a film like “Blind Shaft” or “Still Life”.

Wang Xia-Shuai’s press notes statement provides his personal experiences that map closely to those of his characters:

The story of 11 Flowers is infused with the memories of my life in Guiyang, in the province of Guizhou. In the mid ‘60s, my parents followed the Chinese government’s call asking families to move the main factories in charge of national production inland in order to defend China against a potential attack from the USSR. We left Shanghai to go and live in this poor province. I grew up in this countryside with my older sister, while our parents hoped to rapidly be able to go back to Shanghai. This period of my life left a profound mark on me. We lived in a small village that had been built for us near the Shanghai factory, then dismantled, then put together again. We felt the burden of the obligations my parents – and all other grown-ups in society – were tied down with. I saw how this movement and the Cultural Revolution changed them.

When I became an adult, I realized that very few people knew about the Third Front movement, which pushed these city-dwellers to live with their family in the middle of the countryside. In my films, it was important for me to speak about these people and their lives. I even started a documentary on the subject so that my parents and their friends could tell us why and how they lived there. One of my previous films, Shanghai Dreams, already had my life in the Guizhou province as a background. The film recounted these workers’ children awakening to the world, until their adolescence and their desire for independence. In 11 Flowers, the children are still young and do not understand the world that surrounds them. They do not question the situation they live in. This creates a gap between their point of view and the social and political backdrop.

“11 Flowers” is the best narrative film I have seen this year and will likely be at the top of my list for best of 2013, Hollywood be damned.

July 27, 2012

Three outstanding Asian films

Filed under: Asia,China,Film,Korea — louisproyect @ 6:45 pm

As nations with a distinct identity going back for thousands of years, China, Korea and Japan provide a deep well of historical sagas on a par with Beowulf, the Iliad or any other more familiar Western tales. Not surprisingly, the film industry of each country has tapped into this rich vein in order to create memorable works. This review takes a look at “Sacrifice”, a new film opening today at the Quad Cinema in NYC by acclaimed Chinese director Chen Kaige of “Farewell, My Concubine” fame as well as two fairly recent films on Netflix streaming that will appeal to those who enjoy swordplay and thrillingly choreographed battle scenes involving thousands of men in armor, and to those who are tired of postmodernist irony. One is a Korean film titled “War of the Arrows” that is based on the Manchu invasion of Korea in the 17th century, an event that actually resonates with more recent history. The other is a masterpiece by John Woo titled “Red Cliff” that is set in 3rd century AD China and that thankfully rescues the great director from the hit-making CPA-driven machinery of Hollywood.

“Sacrifice” is based on the classic play “Orphan of Zhao” that was written in the 13th century by Ji Jun-Xiang and is the first Chinese play known to Europe. It was adapted by a number of important authors, including Voltaire. Like much of Shakespeare’s tragedies, revenge is a key element of the narrative in Kaige’s film as well as the two others.

As is so often the case in this genre, warlords are the dominant characters. The film begins with a bloody attack on the Zhao clan by a rival named Tu Angu who seeks to usurp his rivals in a Macbeth-like manner. Every last one of the Zhao clan is slaughtered except the chieftan’s son who is being delivered  by court physician Cheng Ying while the mayhem is occurring.

When one of Tu Angu’s henchmen comes to Zhao’s chambers to retrieve the newborn child and deliver him to be slaughtered, the mother and the physician plead for mercy. Against his better judgment the warrior allows the child to be delivered to safety. When Tu Angu learns that the infant is still alive and concealed somewhere in the city, he orders all newborn male children to be seized from the parents and brought to him, including Chen Ying’s own son who was born within hours of Zhao’s.

In a mix-up that is part deliberate and part accidental, Tu Angu kills Chen Ying’s newborn son thinking that he was Zhao’s, as well as the boy’s mother. Chen Ying is now left alone in the world with nothing but the son of the leader of the Zhao clan who is led to believe that he is the physician’s son.

Showing a shred of remorse for having killed what he thought to be the physician’s son, Tu Angu becomes a godfather to what he assumes is the physician’s son and teaches him the martial arts, including swordsmanship. Chin Yeng has an ulterior motive in allowing the boy to be groomed by his wife and son’s killer. Once the adoptee has reached adulthood, he will learn that his godfather killed his real mother and father. The physician is sure that  the youth will seek bloody vengeance.

Despite the expected presence of swordplay and pitched battles on horseback, “Sacrifice” is much more about human relationships and particularly the divided loyalties between Zhao’s son and the two father figures in his life. As one of China’s finest directors, Chen Kaige elicits memorable performances from Ge You who plays the physician and Wang Xue-Qi who plays Tu Angu.

Asked in an interview how he feels about the inroads that Hollywood is making into China, Chen Kaige answers that his films should generate mass appeal to audiences tiring of tinseltown superficiality. Considering his words, it should be obvious that “Sacrifice” is just the sort of thing that will appeal to American audiences tired of another stupid Ben Stiller movie like “Watch” that opens today as well:

What I can say is that we need to develop the market, if we want people to watch a variety of films; you need a variety of audience. This is a like a chain. Young people under 20, they go to McDonalds, they drink Coca Cola, they wear Nike and they watch Hollywood movies.

You can’t imagine the kids will say to you, “Let’s go to McDonalds, and then let’s go to the Peking Opera.” No way. It’s natural the young kids want to watch U.S. movies. The U.S movies are providing something interesting – high technology, a feast of visual and sound effects, it’s like playing a game.

What can we do? We are facing a big challenge from the invasion of Hollywood films. I think we should stay with the situation. We don’t need to be scared or screaming like crazy saying “The wolf is here!” I feel we should make more stories people can relate to and not just make big films to compete with Hollywood. You can have your own story to tell, which is wonderful.

“War of the Arrows” begins in the same fashion as “Sacrifice” with Chinese warlords wiping out another clan, this time Koreans. And as is the case with “Sacrifice”, it is left up to Nam-yi, the sole male survivor of the attack, to wreak vengeance on his father’s killer. The only other survivor of the attack is his younger sister Ja-in. So, basically you are dealing with a mixture of Macbeth and Hamlet with a lot more action. Who can ask for anything more?

In “War of the Arrows”, the main weapon is a bow and arrow as the title indicates. Nam-yi is a master archer who is living a purposeless life other than perfecting his martial arts. On the day of his sister’s wedding, the same warlords that killed his father raid the compound and seize his sister. The rest of the film is dedicated to his pursuit of the kidnappers and the vengeance for his father’s killing.

While vengeance is a fairly universal theme in Asian film, either of the costume drama genre such as this or in more modern gangster films of the sort that John Woo perfected, it probably resonates more deeply with Koreans who were victimized by both the Chinese and the Japanse at different times in their history.

In preparing for another essay on the Korean War as represented in Korean film, I began reading Bruce Cumings’ “The Korean War”, a book published in 2010 that I can’t recommend more highly. Cumings is not only an authoritative and radical historian, he is also a gifted prose stylist who writes with genuine passion.

The book details the great feats of the anti-Japanese resistance in the 1930s that were led by Kim Il-Sung in Manchuria, the same location as the film’s narrative. Instead of a heroic resistance using bows and arrows, Kim Il Sung led a relatively small band (350) against far more powerful Japanese forces that relied on Korean traitors.

Director Kim Han-Min’s next film is titled “Battle of Myeongryang, Whirlwind Sea” and is scheduled to be released next summer. The AsianWiki describes it as follows:

Movie depicts the Battle of Myeongryang which took place October 26, 1597. The battle involved Admiral Yi Sun-Shin, who had only 12 ships under his command, against the Japanese navy which had over a hundred ships. Admiral Yi Sun-Shin was able to successfully defeat the Japanese navy.

I would like to think that the director is channeling the spirit of Kim Il-Sung but am really holding out for the day when South Korean filmmakers can tell the truth about Kim Il-Sung himself, who was one of the last century’s greatest nationalist heroes next to Fidel Castro and Ho Chi-Minh.

Currently the only version of “Red Cliff” that can be seen on Netflix is the theatrical version, which is an ample 2 ½ hours. Although my remarks are based on this version, I  would urge you to consider purchasing the 2-DVD uncut version from amazon.com as I just did.

Red Cliff tells the story of the war between the Han Dynasty’s Chancellor Cao Cao and two southern warloards Sun Quan and Liu Bei. The climax of the film is a naval assault on the castle at Red Cliff defended by the outnumbered southern forces in the summer of 208. Although John Woo said that only 50 percent of the film is historically accurate, a monumental battle did take place that led to the collapse of the Han Dynasty.

While the historical details of the actual battle are murky, this much is known. It did take place on the Yangtze River, which plays as much of a role in Chinese civilization as the Nile does in Egypt or the Mississippi in American (such as it is.)

Woo’s orchestration of the climactic scenes are about as stunning as any I have seen in this genre and make its Hollywood counterparts such as Wolfgang Petersen’s “Troy” look trivial by comparison. (Petersen, a rather good German director, should like Woo leave Hollywood behind if he wants to retain whatever integrity he still has.)

Like “The Orphan of Zhao”, the battle of Red Cliff has inspired many Chinese writers, including the 14th century Romance of the Three Kingdoms by Luo Guanzhong. There are also video games but I doubt that any could surpass Woo’s film which broke the box office record previously held by Titanic in mainland China, thus helping to realize Chen Kaige’s dream.

I don’t know how many of you are familiar with Woo’s work but suffice it to say that there would be no Quentin Tarentino if there was no John Woo. Tarentino’s films are practically a plagiarism on Woo’s work but without the visual poetry and the deeper moral sensibility.

After sixteen years in Hollywood, Woo returned to Asia to make a film that he had been dreaming about since the mid-80s. In an interview with the July 12, 2008 Singapore Strait Times, he explained his quest:

Woo says his patchy career in Hollywood was a learning experience: ‘In every film I make, be it an entertainment film or something more individualistic, I would search for some meaning that could sustain me for the period of film-making.’

But he hints that the experience had soured considerably by the time he did the Ben Affleck vehicle Paycheck (2003), a widely panned sci-fi thriller. [I saw it for the first time myself a month ago and can recommend it without reservations, if for no other reason that it is based on a Philip K. Dick novel.]

The script passed through many hands and was hemmed in by market considerations and budgetary constraints and there was also little room for improvisation once shooting started.

‘It was very different from how I worked previously as I would make changes on the fly. And it was hard for me to find meaning,’ he admits.

At the same time, there was a momentous event which prompted him to look back East – China won the bid to host the 2008 Olympic Games.

‘I was very excited and moved and I even cried. I thought I should return and make more meaningful movies. Since I have learnt so much in Hollywood, why not take what I have learnt back to China?’ he says.

Having straddled both East and West, he wanted Red Cliff to be a conduit to expose Western audiences to Chinese culture. That is why the West is getting a single-serving version of the film clocking in at just 21/2 hours.

‘Western audiences don’t understand our history. They might even have trouble telling Zhou Yu from Zhao Yun since the names sound similar,’ he says. Zhou Yu is the military strategist to Sun Quan while Zhao Yun is a key general in Liu Bei’s army.

With all due respect to John Woo, I don’t worry much about Western audiences in general. After all, 40 percent of Americans reject the idea of evolution. My reviews are geared to the most intelligent Americans (as well as my readers worldwide), those who have come to the conclusion that capitalism is an irrational system or at least willing to listen to somebody who has such a belief. If you are looking for something to keep your spirit elevated in these most dismal times, I can recommend “Sacrifice”, “War of the Arrows” and “Red Cliff” without reservation.

July 7, 2012

Up the Yangtze; China Heavyweight

Filed under: China,Film — louisproyect @ 8:41 pm

Since I had already planned to review “China Heavyweight”, a documentary that opened yesterday at the IFC Center in NY, it made sense to pair it with a review of Yung Chang’s “Up the Yangtze”, the film that premiered in 2007 and established the director’s reputation as one the sharpest critics of Chinese “progress”. It can now be seen on Netflix streaming.

Chang is a 35-year-old Chinese-Canadian who got the idea for making “Up the Yangtze” in 2002 during a “Farewell” cruise with his parents and grandfather. It gave tourists a last look at one of the world’s iconic waterways before the Three Gorges Dam—then under construction—would plunge ancient towns and cities along the riverside under 75 meters of water. He explained to a Canadian Broadcasting interviewer:

The whole sensory experience was overwhelming. The moment you get off the bus, you’re surrounded by coolies carrying these heavy loads — tourists’ luggage. So I got this idea of making a movie about tourists on this Yangtze cruise boat — a kind of Gosford Park idea that shows the social hierarchy, the lives above and below the decks. And I realized that the people working on the boat were all from the Yangtze area, and that many of their families were affected by the dam.

“Up the Yangtze” features a teenaged boy and girl who go to work for a luxury cruise ship just like the one that the director sailed on back in 2002. The woman is Yu Shui whose parents eke out a living farming along the banks of the Yangtze. The father was once a porter (a “coolie”, a term that possibly originated from kul, the Turkish word for slave) but he lost his job when his town became deluged. Both her parents and Yu Shui understand that she has to go to work on the ship since their situation is so dire.

The man is Chen Bo Yu, who comes from a middle-class family and who has taken the job mostly to make a fast buck through tips. With his command of English and his good looks, he is just the kind of employee the cruise ship is looking for—at least on first blush. It turns out that he is also impossibly arrogant and refuses to serve the very old and the very young since they are not good tippers.

Once on board, they become “Iris” and “Jerry”, names selected to make them more familiar to the mostly English-speaking (and obese) tourists. While their training consists mainly of tips that will help ingratiate them to the trade, a ritual that all people in the tourist industry go through including me when I was their age and working for my dad in the Borscht Belt, you could not help but feel that this was not what China made a socialist revolution to become.

Yung Chang’s primary intention was to make a film about two young people of the post-Maoist generation and not make points about the Three Gorges Dam. But it is almost impossible to make such a film without recording the tragic dimensions of its impact on common people. In one of the most powerful scenes in the film, we see a protest on a street in a town destined to be flooded. We see the protest from inside the gift shop of a local man who is explaining how much suffering the dam has caused to local residents. Those whose homes are being condemned receive a small percentage of what is needed to relocate. When they protest, government-backed goons come to beat them up and trash their shops and stalls. In the course of describing such injustices, the shopkeeper breaks down and starts sobbing.

I strongly recommend “Up the Yangtze” as well as a narrative film about the Three Gorges Dam titled “Still Life” that I reviewed when it came out in 2008 and that is now available as a DVD rental from Netflix.

Shot on location in the town of Fengjie, which was demolished by the state and then deluged by the Yangtze River, it is one of the most radical-minded films coming out of China to date and takes its place alongside “Blind Shaft,” a movie about coal miners. Indeed, one of the two main characters is Sanming, a coal miner who has come to Fengjie in search of a daughter he hasn’t seen in 16 years. The moment he arrives he takes a job demolishing houses.

One evening after work Sanming shares impressions with a fellow worker about the immense changes taking place around them. His comrade rebukes him by saying that he is too “nostalgic”. As irrefutable proof of this, we hear Sanming play a downloaded ring tone on his cell phone, which is an old Red Army anthem—a perfect symbol of the paradoxes of Chinese society today: in the name of Communism, a brutal forced march toward capitalist modernization proceeds apace.

I paid much closer attention to the Three Gorges Dam when construction first began. As a way of follow up on Yung Chang’s documentary, I took a look at some recent news coverage and discovered that the common folk are still being screwed, even those that were compensated. The July 27 2011 Christian Science Monitor reported:

For years the Chinese government refused to acknowledge any dark side to its proudest engineering feat, the largest hydropower project in the world that is also designed to prevent the sort of catastrophic floods that have stricken millions of farmers in the Yangtze Basin for millenniums. Begun in 1994, it opened in 2008.

Two months ago, however, the State Council, China’s cabinet, recognized that the dam had caused “urgent problems … regarding the smooth relocation of residents, ecological protection, and geological disaster prevention.”

That admission marked “a very significant change in attitude in China toward more openness,” says Lars Skov Andersen, a hydrologist working on a European Union-funded project to rehabilitate the Yangtze River watershed. “The Three Gorges project was not adequately prepared, so now it has to be repaired,” he says.

That repair work, including a second round of resettlement, will likely cost $15 billion, half as much as the dam itself cost to build, Mr. Andersen estimates.

But there is little sign yet here of any government action to help the hundreds of thousands of forcibly relocated farmers struggling to make a living on the small plots of poor, mountainous land they were assigned above the 400-mile-long reservoir.

Lack of good land

Wang Xiangui, the Communist Party secretary and mayor of this village, whose 1,500 inhabitants live along the riverbank, says he heard about the State Council statement in May on TV, but that “specific practical policies have not been communicated yet. Solutions still need to be discussed.”

Mr. Wang says he expects that one-third of Xiangjiadian’s residents will be moved to a local town, since there is not enough safe land for everybody in the village to farm.

The lack of good land is a matter of bitter contention among the orange farmers who were resettled in 2002 as the reservoir’s water level rose.

“Down below, I used to harvest 20,000 pounds of oranges on my six mu [approximately one acre] of land,” recalls Xiang. “Now I have only three mu, and the land is poorer, so I cannot grow more than 5,000 pounds a year.”

By way of compensation, she says, the government gave her an ungenerous monthly stipend of $300 for her old house and will give her family a monthly stipend of $7 per person for 20 years.

As with most of the adult men in the village, her husband has left home in search of work as a migrant laborer to make up some of the family’s lost income. “People couldn’t feed themselves, so they had to go out” to find jobs, explains Xiang’s neighbor Qiao Shihu.

In addition to the human disaster, there is a looming ecological disaster that threatens China’s ability to feed itself adequately in future years, as the Guardian reported on May 11, 2012:

A statement on the government’s website read: “At the same time that the Three Gorges project provides huge comprehensive benefits, urgent problems must be resolved regarding the smooth relocation of residents, ecological protection and geological disaster prevention.”

There were few specifics but China’s cabinet, the state council, admitted several problems had not been foreseen.

“Problems emerged at various stages of project planning and construction but could not be solved immediately, and some arose because of increased demands brought on by economic and social development,” the statement said.

Since the 1.5 mile barrier was completed in 2006 the reservoir has been plagued by algae and pollution that would previously have been flushed away.

The weight of the extra water has also been blamed for tremors, landslides and erosion of slopes.

To ease these threats the government said last year many more people may have to be relocated. This week it promised to establish disaster warning systems, reinforce riverbanks, boost funding for environmental protection and improve benefits for the displaced.

This is not the first warning. Four years ago the state media quoted government experts who said: “There are many new and old hidden ecological and environmental dangers concerning the Three Gorges dam. If preventive measures are not taken the project could lead to a catastrophe.”

Last year, site engineers recommended an additional movement of hundreds of thousands of nearby residents and more investment in restoring the ecosystem.

The government has already raised its budget for water treatment plants but opponents of the dam say this is not enough. “The government built a dam but destroyed a river,” said Dai Qing, a longtime critic of the project. “No matter how much effort the government makes to ease the risks, it is infinitesimal. The state council is spending more money on the project rather than investigating fully. I cannot see a real willingness to solve the problem.”

Next to “Jerry” and “Cindy”, the most important figure in “Up the Yangtze” is the director himself who is never seen on-camera but whose voice can be heard throughout the film as he ruminates on the nature of “progress” and the loss of socialist ideals.

His latest film is much more of a cinéma vérité project, even evoking the master of the genre Frederick Wiseman. Becoming fascinated by the growing popularity of boxing in China, Yung Chang and his crew went to a town in Southern Sichuan province that had a boxing school geared to local high school students.

Except for the climax of the film, which shows the coach of the school returning to the ring for a last shot at a highly regarded amateur prize, there is very little boxing as such going on. Mostly what we see are two young men going through rigorous training, including some drills that seem to be as much about weeding out the ambivalent as they are about developing skills.

Despite the lack of matches as such, there is something compelling about watching the amateur fighters going through the paces, reminding me in fact of Frederick Wiseman’s 2010 documentary “Boxing Gym”.

While the film is not so nearly as political as “Up the Yangtze”, there is an implicit context given the introduction to the film that establishes Mao Zedong’s decision to ban boxing after taking power, viewing it as “too Western” and “brutal”. The fact that it has made a revival is an implicit commentary on Chinese society.

The two featured amateur boxers in the film have backgrounds similar to “Iris” in “Up the Yangtze”. Just as she saw the cruise ship as an escape from poverty, so do the boxers, especially the one who wants to become a professional. When we see them back on their parents’ meager farms, we understand that poverty drives the sport in China just as it has in the USA.

While Yung Chang allows the film to speak for itself in good cinéma vérité fashion, we understand that this aspect of life in contemporary China troubles him. But what gives the film complexity and a deeper interest is his love of the sport (he was a big fan of boxing and Kung Fu films growing up). He saw the sport as a way of testing one’s “respect, honor, and perseverance” and as such laudable.

In some ways, it is regrettable that the film was constrained by cinéma vérité conventions since I think it would have been an even better film if the director has provided some background on boxing in China in the pre-Mao epoch. A brief history of boxing in China in the press notes gives you an idea of how important boxing has been in China’s past:

A BRIEF HISTORY OF BOXING IN CHINA

“Mastering others is strength. Mastering yourself makes you fearless.”
—Lao Tzu

Although Western styles of boxing didn’t arrive in China until the 20th century, forms of Chinese-style boxing date back 3700 years to the Late Shang Dynasty, when aristocrats used martial arts for military training. Chinese martial arts, known in Mandarin as Wushu and in the West as Kung Fu, encompass a number of training and fighting styles developed over centuries. Some forms gather inspiration from various Chinese philosophies, myths and legends. Some styles focus on the internal, and the harnessing of the life force called chi or qi. And others concentrate on the external, and the improvement of strength and fitness. Each fighting style offers a different approach to the common problems of self-defense, health, and self-development—from a Chinese perspective.

In 1900, a group of rebels called the Righteous and Harmonious Fists rose up against foreign occupiers and Christian missionaries in China. This is known in the West as the Boxer Rebellion because of the martial arts and calisthenics practiced by the rebels. Rhetorically, they encouraged the use of the term Kuoshu, meaning “the arts of the nation,” rather than the colloquial term Kung Fu (or Gongfu), in an effort to associate Chinese martial arts with national pride rather than individual accomplishment.

Modern day “Western boxing,” was first introduced in the late 1920s in the port cities of Shanghai and Guangzhou, where foreign sailors were pitted against local fighters. During this time, the influential book The Technique of Western Boxing was translated into Chinese. In the ’30s, some sports academies introduced boxing classes into their major curricula and fostered a number of Chinese boxing talents. But in 1953, a boxer died at a big competition in Tianjin, a city near Beijing. Sports authorities were unnerved, so in 1959, as China organized its first National Games, it dropped boxing from the lineup. Mao thought boxing was too “American” and too violent. The political atmosphere was increasingly dismissive of Western imports. Fan Hong, a scholar who specializes in China’s athletic history states that, “people believed that boxing was very brutal, very ruthless, and those were said to be the characteristics of capitalism.” So it was banned.

January 13, 2011

Crime and Punishment; Petition

Filed under: China,Film — louisproyect @ 10:42 pm

Opening today for a one week engagement at Anthology Film Archives in New York City are two documentaries by Zhao Liang who works in an austere cinéma vérité style but who leaves no doubt about where his sympathies lie, namely with China’s poor.

Despite being filmed with the cooperation of Chinese police, “Crime and Punishment” is just the opposite of “Cops”, the long-running Fox TV reality show that depicts different police departments around the United States as a kind of grown-up boy scouts with guns. The border guards in Liang’s documentary, who are a kind of militia operating under the PLA’s authority, beat and humiliate their prisoners in the police station as if it was part of their job description. Of note is the fact that Liang was all on his own during the filming, an incredible accomplishment given the standard crew of 20 or more in most documentaries made in the West. Perhaps working on his own allowed the cops to drop their guard, or—more likely—they didn’t really care if they were shown as sadists.

One segment captures the nature of Chinese law and order in its cruelly bureaucratic splendor. They have arrested a 43-year-old man for pickpocketing a cell phone at a nearby bazaar. In the station they grow increasingly frustrated with his failure to answer their questions adequately. A typical exchange as seen in the subtitles:

A cop: “Where do you live?”

The suspect: (unintelligible).

Since I don’t speak Chinese, it was a little hard for me to understand why the man had so much trouble answering the cops clearly, especially since it made them more and more vicious as the questioning proceeded. After a few minutes, they were slapping him in the face, all to no avail. He could neither give them the answers they were looking for (who were his accomplices?) nor enunciate them clearly even if he knew the answers.

The cops eventually escalated their interrogation methods. They made him stand in a semi-squatting position until he was ready to answer their questions. As his suffering increased, he kept returning to an upright position only to be remonstrated by the cops: “Don’t you understand that you must squat?” As always, he looked at them with a quizzical expression on his face.

Eventually we learned what the problem was. A cop is seen talking on the phone. Look, he says, we have a deaf-mute in the station here and we need somebody to interrogate him.

What a commentary on the People’s Liberation Army to see such behavior. It will remind you of how the IDF treats the Palestinians or how the American troops treat Iraqis or Afghans. It is all the more disgusting since the sadism emanates from a nominally socialist police force and against its own people. Of course, the class divisions in China today are as deep as those seen in conditions of neocolonial occupation.

The film is a good reminder that China is going through a kind of “primitive accumulation” that Karl Marx explored in Volume One of Capital. After the enclosure acts, peasants were forced to go into the work force or become vagabonds and thieves. Poaching and other forms of criminal behavior were the inevitable consequence of losing one’s means of production, namely land. In China today, people retain their farms in many cases but are forced to enter the “informal economy” or to steal to stay afloat. The gendarmes in “Crime and Punishment” have the job of keeping the riffraff in line.

In one case, they arrest a sixty-four year old junkman who does not have the proper papers. They seize his donkey and cart until he can prove that he is legally allowed to pick through the rubble of old buildings to find something worth salvaging, like scraps of plastic and paper. In another case, a group of young men are beaten repeatedly until they confess that they have chopped down a few trees on a mountainside to sell in town. New Year’s is coming and they need to buy gifts for their children.

Apparently one Chinese citizen got sick and tired of police brutality and arbitrary behavior and struck back as the New York Times reported on November 27, 2008:

A 28-year-old man convicted of killing six police officers was executed by lethal injection on Wednesday morning, according to state media, ending a case that drew a surprising amount of public sympathy for the man.

The execution came shortly after the nation’s highest court, the Supreme People’s Court in Beijing, rejected an appeal on behalf of the unemployed Beijing man, Yang Jia, who stormed a Shanghai police station on July 1 and stabbed six officers to death.

Mr. Yang said he had been wrongly accused of stealing a bicycle and been beaten by the Shanghai police in October 2007; the police have acknowledged that they questioned him about riding an unlicensed bicycle but denied beating him. Mr. Yang wrote to the Shanghai police and demanded compensation for psychological damage. He eventually called his assault at the police station a revenge attack.

To many Chinese, he became a symbol of the little guy standing up against police harassment and government injustice. During his two trials, supporters gathered in crowds outside the courthouse in Shanghai. Some wore T-shirts with Mr. Yang’s image; some called him a hero.

Outside of Shanghai, some Chinese newspapers published sympathetic portraits of Mr. Yang.

The title of Zhao Liang’s other documentary “Petition” refers to the process in which aggrieved citizens of China can win redresses against illegal or unjust actions of those in positions of authority. Petition offices in Beijing operate as a kind of ombudsman that is the court of last resort for ordinary citizens.

Zhao Liang has been filming petitioners since 1996 who have lived in a shanty town near the Beijing railroad station in the southern part of the city. Coming from both the rural peasantry and the middle class (including one professor who was refused tenure), they stand on line to get a hearing from petty bureaucrats who are about as cold as the cops in “Crime and Punishment”. At least they don’t see slapping and cursing the petitioners as part of their job description.

That can’t be said about the “retrievers” who are sent out as deputies from the rural hometowns of the petitioners. Once the petition officers decide that they have heard enough from some peasant who has lost his land or a factory worker who was fired illegally, they call up the authorities from their hometown to get some goons to pick up the inconvenient complainer. As was the case in “Crime and Punishment”, Liang is on the spot to film the violence taking place on the streets of Beijing as the hapless petitioners are slapped and kicked into submission, then hauled off into waiting cars.

Some of the most interesting scenes in the movie show groups of petitioners who have developed real bonds of solidarity with each other discussing what has to be done in China to rid the country of the gangsters in power. They harp on the need for democracy and an end to a single-party state even if it operates in the name of socialism.

Today’s NY Times reports on the struggle of an artist very much in sympathy with the petitioners, as well as the young man who killed the six cops:

The studio would have stood at the heart of an embryonic arts cluster on the outskirts of Shanghai, a draw for luminaries from around the world.

It took two years to build, and one day to tear down.

An order to raze the studio — designed by Ai Weiwei, a protean artist who is one of the most outspoken critics of the Chinese Communist Party — was issued last July. Mr. Ai took the move to be retribution for rankling the authorities. He said officials told him that the demolition would not take place until after the first day of the Year of the Rabbit, which falls on Feb. 3.

So he was shocked to discover that workers had begun knocking it down early Tuesday, Mr. Ai said in a telephone interview from Shanghai on Wednesday. Mr. Ai said a neighboring studio he had designed for a friend had also been destroyed.

“Everything is gone,” he said. “It’s all black now. They finished the job at 9 o’clock last night.”

Mr. Ai’s studio was to be used as an education center and a site for artists in residence. He had invited a group of university graduates from Oslo to come to the studio next month to study architecture with him.

Mr. Ai said he believed that his advocacy in two causes might have prompted Shanghai officials to order the razing. The first was that of Yang Jia, a Beijing resident who killed six policemen in a Shanghai police station after being arrested and beaten for riding an unlicensed bicycle. Mr. Yang became a hero among many Chinese, and was later executed. The second was the Kafkaesque case of Feng Zhenghu, a lawyer and activist who spent more than three months in Tokyo’s Narita Airport after Shanghai officials denied him entry. Mr. Ai made a documentary about Mr. Feng’s predicament.

Mr. Ai has also demanded democracy for China, criticized government corruption for playing a role in the deaths of schoolchildren in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake and stridently supported Liu Xiaobo, a political prisoner who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize last year.

Like many on the left, I viewed the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo with some suspicion especially since the man was on record as supporting the war in Iraq. While this statement was unforgivable, I feel somewhat different after having seen these two documentaries. The simple truth is that the political system in China crushes the human spirit no matter how many consumer goods, cars, and houses are now available to the population. As socialists, we must never forget that the freedom from arbitrary arrest, torture both petty and grand, the right of assembly, etc. must expand under socialism, not disappear. The discussion about China on the left tends to have an abstract quality. Nothing else will help to make the discussion more concrete and more real than these two powerful documentaries that I strongly recommend to anybody in the greater New York area.

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