The Wooden Man’s Bride
by Huang Jianxin
Moving the Mountain
by Michael Apted
Toronto’s annual Festival of Festivals continues to offer an eclectic range of films both from the Third World and about the Third World. Among a myriad of offerings on China this year two films stood out, one historical, the other contemporary.
A historical drama by one of Taiwan’s great young film-makers, Huang Jianxin, The Wooden Man’s Bride is exquisitely acted and beautifully filmed. The setting is a wind-blown nineteenth-century village in the midst of China’s arid plains. This is feudal China, chock full of rapacious bandits, struggling peasants and rich, powerful landlords. Wu Kui is a loyal young serf who has been chosen to help carry a spirited bride-to-be to her wedding ceremony. When the procession is attacked by bandits, Wu courageously, though unsuccessfully, defends the woman. Later he returns to the bandits’ lair and convinces their leader to release her.
In the meantime, when the groom dies unexpectedly his tradition-bound mother insists the bride be faithful to the young man’s carved wooden image. From that point on the film poignantly details the elicit romance between Wu and the bride-to-be across rigid lines of social class. This may sound like a recipe for an Asian soap opera but it is far from that. Engaging, strongly-etched characters turn this into a moving critique of the stultifying prison of cultural tradition.
Moving the Mountain by British film-maker Michael Apted is a more contemporary offering. It passionately chronicles the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstration and massacre in Beijing. Apted tells the story through the testimony of five of the key student leaders in the pro-democracy movement – mixing dramatization, documentation, archival footage and straight interviews in a seamless and forceful style. The reconstruction of events leading up to the 4 June arrival of tanks and soldiers in the Square tellingly reveals both the courage and youthful naiveté of the thousands of students from across China who were drawn to the protests.
But the film is more than just interesting history. It is also a gut-wrenching examination of the psychology of political activism. How do those young people who have lived through the tension and tragedy of Tiananmen Square rebuild and refocus their lives after the crackdown? Many of the student leaders are now permanently exiled. Of the five who feature here four are in the US. Most, including Li Lu whose story is the centrepiece of the film, have landed on their feet and are still working for the pro-democracy movement. The son of parents denounced as ‘stinking intellectuals’ during the Cultural Revolution, Li Lu is an articulate and rigorous critic, destined to be a thorn in the side of the Chinese Government for years to come.
But the terror also had its victims: one woman interviewee tearfully recounts the trauma which has left her emotionally shattered and unwilling to maintain her previous political commitment.
The one student leader in the film who stayed in China is critical of his comrades who left, and Wei Jingsheng, the father of China’s democracy movement, claims with hindsight that the Tiananmen students never understood the brutal power of the Chinese state. Moving the Mountain is a rare work: both spirited and, inevitably, optimistic. The film ends with a Chinese parable about a farmer who decides to move, stone by stone, a mountain that lies between him and his fields. When his neighbours laugh he replies stoically: ‘I have children and they will have children. And there will be more children. And one day the mountain will be moved.’
Twentieth-Century South Africa
by William Beinart
(Oxford University Press ISBN 0-19-289239-8)
While apartheid ruled South Africa it was simple to imagine that we knew roughly what was going on, where we stood and what should be done about it.
Now that apartheid has collapsed it’s no longer so obvious. We now have to see the place afresh with eyes less dulled by the awful gloom of apartheid, yet without pretending that it was never there. Rediscovering history is one of the ways we can do this, and William Beinart’s meticulous, lively introduction to the story of the South African people through the twentieth century is an excellent place to start.
You quickly discover that there were powerful – and enduring – forces behind the exploitation of black South Africans, orchestrated to deliver great wealth into certain hands. You can see quite clearly, too, the difficulty the architects of apartheid had trying to keep the cities ‘white’ against a tide of urbanization, or to sustain cheap labour on white-owned farms against relentless demand for expendable human muscle in the mines. In both cases the result was, eventually, an almighty mess.
It would be wrong to conclude from this, however, that the demise of apartheid was engineered entirely by the hidden hand of market forces. Beinart reveals with humour and subtlety the intriguing complexity of South African society and its transformative effect.
Gandhi, who lived here for 20 years at the turn of the century, drew on the established practices of African rural workers to develop satyagraha, or ‘passive resistance’. And, writes Beinart, though he arrived ‘wearing a suit and a turban... He left, at least metaphorically, in a dhoti’.
You may be a little bit bemused when you read that sheep-rearing communities in South Africa were ‘savaged by the depression, drought and dead sheep’. Could this be a reference to British politician Denis Healey’s celebrated description of an attack on him by Conservative minister Sir Geoffrey Howe as ‘like being savaged by a dead sheep’?
The book is at once immensely readable, informative and timely, coinciding in South Africa with one of those rare, fleeting moments when there is a shared feeling of human liberation.
by Walden Bello (with Shea Cunningham and Bill Rau)
(Pluto Press with Food First and the Transnational Institute ISBN 0-7453-0834-1)
This is a punchy account of the shift to the free market during the 1980s. Bello focuses on the structural-adjustment programmes (SAPs) imposed by the IMF and the World Bank in exchange for loans to developing countries. This ground will be familiar to many NI readers but the book is a useful introduction for students, well illustrated with photographs. Case studies of Chile, Mexico and Ghana show how adjustment leads most often to a vicious circle of worsening poverty.
Bello’s main point is that SAPs have been ‘a tremendous success’, not in meeting their apparent goal of restoring economic health, but in terms of their broader strategic aim of regaining US global domination – the resubordination of the South to the North.
The Reaganites saw the threat from the South as contributing to the US’s economic decline. Both SAPs and trade-policy pressures to open Asian economies to US goods were part of their policy package for recovery. Then, with the collapse of communism the new world order was complete – a ‘dark victory’, as the book’s title suggests.
Bello sees the old choice between socialism and barbarism once again looming, but remains optimistic. He foresees little improvement under Clinton, but gives too much credit to the Reagan administration, implying that it managed a straightforward movement from vision to policy to outcome. The reality was a lot of groping for the right policies.
If any group has gained from the global shift towards free markets, it is Northern banks and financial institutions. Yet Bello pays them surprisingly little attention. The book remains, however, a worthwhile read on the current state of global power.
What happens when you put together an unassuming, somewhat camp, closet homosexual heir who doesn’t want to be king; advisors who take advantage of this to run the whole royal show; and a religious bureaucracy that controls almost everybody except a young peasant woman who insists that she hears saintly voices and will obey only these?
Part satire and part drama, Otto Preminger’s Saint Joan is an extraordinary and powerful concoction. The movie seems to be split in half – the first part devoted to fast-paced mental slapstick that introduces the characters and ends with Joan leading the French soldiers. The second half deals with her capture by the English and subsequent trial by the Church inquisitors. These dramatic segments are the best, with some brilliant dialogue written by Graham Greene and riveting acting by Jean Seberg in the role of Joan.
The historical facts are as follows: Joan of Arc was born in France circa 1412, illiterate and – if you believe in the numerous tales of miracles surrounding her – clairvoyant. Listening to orders that she believed came from the Archangel Michael, Saint Catherine and Saint Margaret, she became a soldier to lead an army against the English and to put the French Dauphin Charles on the throne. Joan was captured by the English, tried as a witch and burned at the stake by the Church. She was 19 when she died.
Joan’s psychic skills are well displayed in the movie – as when she predicts the death of a man seconds before he keels over. But the French Squire Robert de Baudricourt remains highly sceptical. Joan says: ‘I hear voices telling me what to do. They come from God.’ He counters: ‘They come from your imagination.’ Joan instantly replies: ‘Of course. That is how the messages of God come to us.’ Judging by the historical accounts of Joan’s trial she was certainly wise and witty enough to produce such rebuttals.
None of this wins her thanks from the prince she was trying to help. Even after he is crowned, the bumbling King Charles VII is too busy lamenting his finances and his lack of new clothes – his mother the queen uses what paltry clothing allowance they have on herself. At the coronation Charles complains that the holy oil used to anoint him is rancid. Joan harbors no illusions about him. When he asks her if she can turn lead into gold, she retorts that she can turn him into a king although it’s a ‘miracle that will take some doing’.
Humour aside, the charge of heresy was a most serious one in Joan’s time. When a Church inquisitor insists that, ‘the voice of God is the voice of the Church’ and Joan likewise insists that she will follow none but her own voices, we sweat and agonize with her as she first exhibits her belief in, then doubt of, and finally belief in, her voices. How can she not mistrust the Church? The prosecuting inquisitor has warned the council to ‘be on your guard against your natural compassion’ and tells them: ‘If you hate cruelty remember that nothing is so cruel in its consequences as the toleration of heresy.’
This faithful rendering of the mind-games that the Church exercised in its attempts to rid the world of anyone who didn’t cringe before it, is one of many such scenes. Tension builds as Joan finds answers to frustrate the prosecutor’s every attempt to threaten and humiliate her. The trial seems realistic as well as exciting as the sinister hypocrisy of the Church is revealed toward those who dare to listen to themselves.
I recommend watching Saint Joan twice – the first time for the overview and the second time to enjoy the nuances and savour the dialogue. Seberg’s stunning performance induces us initially to ask if this young woman is mad or a visionary. But perhaps that is not the right question; after all, the Church never questioned her sanity. It simply wanted her to admit that she was wrong to follow her divine guidance and that it was right in insisting that everybody follow theirs. But by the time we hear Joan’s impassioned speech before the Inquisitors – after hearing that they will spare her life only if she agrees to be imprisoned forever away from the natural world she so loves – there can be no question about who is merciful and who is not. ‘By your wanting to take the sky, birds and flowers away from me, or from any human creature, I know that your counsel is that of the Devil and mine is of God.’
Saint Joan, directed by Otto Preminger, was released in 1957. Graham Greene wrote the screenplay, based on George Bernard Shaw’s play.
©Copyright: New Internationalist 1995