issue 253 - March 1994
Farewell My Concubine
directed by Chen Kaige
In 1984 Beijing-born director Chen Kaige’s debut film Yellow Earth heralded a new era for Chinese cinema – the ‘Fifth generation’ of filmmakers who were openly critical of the country’s recent history. Yellow Earth won awards internationally but was vilified at home. The Communist Party leaders denounced the film for its portrayal of the country’s ‘poverty and backwardness’. Ten years and five films on, Kaige still courts controversy. Farewell My Concubine could only be screened in China after some judicial pruning. The objections this time have to do with the fact that the film deals with homosexuality.
Certainly Kaige and the screenwriter Lilian Lee, upon whose novel the film is based, are charting new ground and touching on desires that have been previously stifled in China. But it is ironical that Kaige deals with it in terms of China’s oldest artistic tradition, the Beijing Opera – founded anyway on sexual ambiguity given that the women’s roles are always played by men. Unfurling like an ornately embroidered tapestry, this epic sweep of a film covers 50 years, tracing the turbulent relations between two Opera stars, Dieyi (Leslie Cheung) and Xiaolou (Zhang Fengyi), and the prostitute Juxian (Gong Li) whom Xiaolou eventually marries. The two men meet in the 1920s as children at the brutal and austere Opera Academy and Dieyi becomes infatuated with Xiaolou. They survive the Japanese invasion in 1937, the communist revolution in 1949 and the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s.
History infects the protagonists’ lives, no more so than during the Cultural Revolution when they are pushed to denounce each other – Juxian for her ‘shady’ past as prostitute and Dieyi for his ‘homosexual crimes’.
Provoking questions about friendship and loyalty that only those who have lived under authoritarian regimes will ever know how to answer, Farewell My Concubine is a monumental film as vivid as the operas that counterpoint the engrossing drama.
We Who Believe in Freedom:
Sweet Honey in the Rock... still on the journey
by Bernice Johnson Reagon and Sweet Honey in the Rock
(Anchor Books / Doubleday 1993.)
Sweet Honey in the Rock, an American women’s acapella sextet, offers music of such intensity and fervour that many listeners feel suspended in a state of near swoon. So it’s hard to talk about the group without resorting to pulpit style exhortations. If you haven’t heard Sweet Honey, you’d better run out and get a recording.
We Who Believe in Freedom is a collection of essays by the many women who have been part of Sweet Honey over the past 20 years. The women in the group come from diverse backgrounds. For all of them, though, singing in Sweet Honey is a life-changing experience and their stories make fascinating reading.
While just about every rock star is dabbling in social causes these days, Sweet Honey’s political commitments stem from deeper roots. The group’s founder Bernice Johnson Reagon found her musical calling as one of the Freedom Singers during the 1960s Civil Rights movement. She knew early on that songs were the essence of the struggle. These were the words that mobilized people; that offered strength and solace and a vision of a better time to come.
Altogether, this book offers affecting testimonials to the extraordinary power of Sweet Honey, a group whose politically-engaged and spiritually-charged music is not just entertainment but medicine for the soul.
(This book is currently only available in the US and Canada but seven Sweet Honey in the Rock albums, including Breath and Good News, are available on the Cooking Vinyl label.)
The Destruction of Yugoslavia: Tracing the Break-up
by Branka Magas
(Verso ISBN 086091 593X)
The past 20 months have seen around two million Bosnian Muslims threatened with Europe’s first genocide since the Second World War, their homeland darkened by massacre, rape and terror.
But Magas argues that it is wrong to see violence in former Yugoslavia as the result of a long-term hatred between Croats, Muslims and Serbs forced to coexist temporarily under communism. These old ‘nationalisms’ are recent fabrications, used by corrupt governments opposed to political pluralism and whose fear inclines them to control rather than reform. Ethnic hatred thus plays a minor part and opportunism a major one.
The twin themes of a fabricated past and a propagandized present recur throughout the book, itself a product of 12 years of research, characterized by a breadth of history and solid political analysis. It becomes clear that a major factor in the undoing of Yugoslavia is the silencing of dissent and opposition, media control, and the cultural production of paranoia. It is propaganda which has fuelled the chain reactions of aggression and vengeance, entrenched through manipulated news broadcasts on local stations. Such propaganda has been regularly linked with the deliberate arming of extremist paramilitaries.
Magas’s is a melancholy voice, not a strident one, as she unravels the appalling story of how this conflict came not from below but was imposed from above.
Nothing Can Stop Us
by Robert Wyatt
(Rough Trade R3092 CD)
It has never been easy to classify Robert Wyatt. He is remembered for his work with Soft Machine in the 1960s, for cameos with Jimi Hendrix and in recent years as an incisive songwriter whose humanitarian brand of communism imbues every song. Nothing Can Stop Us is a collection of 11 tracks, all of which appeared during 1980-81.
This re-release is a gem. Its ten songs and one poem celebrate the folk song in its most unadorned splendour, stressing its mixed function of protest, communication and praise.
Certain songs, typically the workers’ anthem Red Flag, may have stronger claims to being mass songs as opposed to folk songs. While another, the disco hit At Last I’m Free seems at first glance a whimsical inclusion. But in Wyatt’s hands the idea of ‘freedom’ becomes a fragile goal that requires nurturing, and is a statement about personal politics as much as social relations.
This balance between the personal and the political holds the album together. For many years, Wyatt has been a card-carrying Communist Party member and his awareness of historical process is reflected in his overtly political songs, many of which were written 30, 40 or 50 years ago.
Trade Union, written by the London-based Bengali group Dishari, brings us up to date. With a ripple of tabla, Abdus Salique launches into a delicately woven vocal line exhorting Bengalis to unite against racism under the union banner. The message is firmly directed towards Asians living in the East End of London and combating virulent racism on a daily basis.
Such subject matter is not a bundle of laughs. Many musicians would be unable to lighten these songs away from a didactic or hectoring delivery. Wyatt’s great strength lies in his simple, clear voice: there is nothing pompous or saintly or worthy about him. In fact, the keynote of the album is that of humility and reflection.
Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children was published in 1981 when the Western world had taken a shift to the Right, and its fiction writers seemed to be producing mainly stylish but anodyne, apolitical stuff which appeared to have no other purpose than to entertain a comfortable middle class.
For me, Midnight’s Children was a breath of fresh air. At last here was a writer who had produced a work that dared show that the everyday lives of ‘ordinary’ citizens of a country are inextricably bound up with grander national politics.
The novel tells the story of a group of children who were all born on the day that the ‘new’ independent nation of India came into existence in 1947. The hero – if hero be the right word – of the novel is Saleem. Together with another boy, Shiva, he is born exactly on the stroke of midnight, thus winning acclaim from the Prime Minister and a prize from The Times of India for being a symbol of the nascent state. Saleem discovers that he, along with other children born on Independence Day, has telepathic powers. He founds an alternative Congress consisting of all these children.
The Congress is able to function on a telepathic level and Rushdie portrays it as a mirror image of the real Indian Congress, including all the petty wrangles and pointless prejudices of the politicians of the day. Saleem seeks to impose his ideas of a moral and decent India upon his fellow children.
Shiva, on the other hand, believes only in the survival of the fittest. The two boys fall into a Manichean – good against evil – struggle. The children’s Congress collapses amid recriminations and accusations of élitism. Rushdie’s subtle irony and wide-ranging criticism of power politics becomes apparent.
Few works convey so magnificently just how the corrupt and corrupting policies of major figures filter through to the lives of the populace. In this single novel Rushdie encompasses the aspirations of a new nation and the horrors that stem from the unimaginative, internecine antics of an élite group of politicians. It was these politicians who were ultimately responsible for the interminable wars with Pakistan, pervasive corruption and the dictatorial attitudes adopted by the tragicomic Gandhi dynasty. It should surprise no-one that Indira Gandhi had the book banned when it first came out.
But Rushdie is no pessimist. What shines through the novel is the indomitable spirit of the Indian people. Saleem comes to symbolize not only the new nation, but citizenship itself. No matter how corrupt are politicians and absurd the aims they represent, the people survive.
Ultimately Saleem travels from his hometown of Bombay to the jungles of Bengal as part of a secret army expeditionary force and confronts Shiva.
At the conclusion of Midnight’s Children, Saleem simply wishes to throw off the oppressive yoke of his mystical powers and lead a normal life as a simple citizen. This seemed to me to fit with the aspirations of a great many people in the West in the early 1980s. As they strove to go about their everyday lives, to bring up their children, to pay off their debts, the selfish and distorted policies of an elected dictatorship prevented these things.
And like early post-Independence India, the Thatcher and Reagan ideologies were still in a formative state. Who could have envisaged the disintegration of the Welfare State or the ruinous economic policies which would lead to large-scale unemployment?
At that time Salman Rushdie brought home to me that there was at least one novelist who was attempting to blow the trumpet for the less advantaged and the dispossessed – and in so doing he produced a masterpiece.
Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie (Penguin, 1981)