Editor’s Notes: The following review of The Red Detachment of Women is part of our coverage for TIFF’s A Century of Chinese Cinema which runs from June 5th to August 11th at TIFF Bell Lightbox. For more information of this unprecedented film series visit http://tiff.net/century and follow TIFF on Twitter at @TIFF_NET.
Propaganda films must be tricky to make. On one hand, you have a clear statement you wish to make on behalf of the government, and on the other you want to entertain your audience. If one of those elements are missing, the film fails because you are either not educating or not entertaining. The Red Detachment of Women (1961) actually fails to do either. It starts off well enough, with Qionghua (Xijuan Zhu) a slave girl who keeps trying to escape from prison but is always captured, whipped and put in a sunken cell waist high with water. Then they have the nerve to ask why she keeps trying to escape. The prison, and the island the story is set on, is run by Nan ba tian (Qiang Chen) who is the head of the Chinese Army there. Along comes Changqing (Xin-Gang Wang) who is trying to get through Nan ba’s territory but is arrested. After discovering that Changqing has money and deciding he is a wealthy businessman, Nan ba has him released from prison and attempts to woo him for money and weapons. Changqing is left to go back to his hometown (so he says) but purchases Qionghua so she can get out of prison.
Propaganda films must be tricky to make. On one hand, you have a clear statement you wish to make on behalf of the government, and on the other you want to entertain your audience.
It turns out that Changqing is the Communist Party Secretary for the region and is on his way to the Soviet district with donation money to fight against Nan ba. He frees Qionghua and tells her if she wants to join the women army to go to a specific town and gives her 4 coins to buy food for herself. She goes off to join the army and meets up with another woman who is also on her way to do the same. They become fast friends and get to the town. They join the army and discover Changqing is who he is and Qionghua seems to love him, but their relationship ends up being confined to endless platitudes about the Communist Party.
This is where the film takes a detour it never comes off of. The many scenes of Changqing instilling the values of Communism in Qionghua are terribly written because they ignore the sexual tension that is between the two. The scenes would have been more meaningful and possible more instructive if their feelings weren’t limited to being soldiers in the war against the Chinese Nationalists.
It’s also around here where the pacing takes a nosedive. Each scene drags its feet to the next one, pulling out the non-tension to the last and inching towards the inevitable conflict between the Communists and Nan ba. They capture him, but he gets away and comes back with more soldiers, then there is a firefight that look more like two battalions of Imperial Storm Troopers fighting it out shooting everywhere and not hitting anyone. Eventually there is great sacrifice and one character dies on the battle field. Only they don’t, they were captured. Then killed. Needless scenes were just tacked on the end, one right after another as if to fill in to a pre-determined running time.
I understand why this film was made, especially when it was. In totalitarian states, the government controls all aspects of media and produces films that are designed to lift up the people and reinforce their belief in the government. The Nazis did it, the Russians did it, and even the U. S. did during WWII, and they often weren’t any good, with some notable exceptions like The Triumph of the Will (1935) and most of Sergei Eisenstein’s work, and even Frank Capra’s prop docs made during the war. The point is that governments sometimes feel the need to put out these films to rouse the public’s spirits, and most of the time they are lousy because no government really knows how to make films. The result is a script filled with ham-handed dialogue performed by flat actors and directed in a way that just gets the material on film and into theaters. The Red Detachment of Women is no exception.
To be fair, this was only director Jin Xie’s second film and it’s possible he hadn’t really found his voice. It’s likely he just did what he was told, because none of this looks like he was particularly interested in the material.
To be fair, this was only director Jin Xie’s second film and it’s possible he hadn’t really found his voice. It’s likely he just did what he was told, because none of this looks like he was particularly interested in the material. The color is bad and the make-up is worse, especially for the Nan ba character, who is frequently shown with a pale face but normally colored hands.
I will also mention that my enjoyment of the film was limited due to the terrible translation in the subtitles. I only speak about two words in Mandarin (yes and no) but even I knew that the subtitles were off. Sentences were cut off, there was very little punctuation and some things just didn’t make sense at all and at time even included what I can only suppose (or hope) was stage direction (there were several times where, before a character speaks the subtitles read Someone Enters Room then begins to speak). Add to that how talky the film was and how much of it was just love for the Communist Party of China (in pre-revolution days, around 1930), and the film became a chore to watch.
Even with all of that, I will say that the film may be worth some of your time. It is as interesting as any old piece of propaganda in that you get a glimpse into how a certain government was thinking and acting during a specific timeframe. This film may be a weak attempt at a Chinese October (1928) but it does let you know what they were doing to arouse national spirit in the years before the Cultural Revolution (which took place in 1967, around when ours did but drastically different). It may be a ham-fisted film, but one that some value can be drawn from.
[notification type=”star”]35/100 ~ AWFUL. Even with all of that, I will say that the film may be worth some of your time. It is as interesting as any old piece of propaganda in that you get a glimpse into how a certain government was thinking and acting during a specific timeframe. This film may be a weak attempt at a Chinese October (1928) but it does let you know what they were doing to arouse national spirit in the years before the Cultural Revolution.[/notification]