The first film in my fourth match-up in the second round of the 90s Far East Bracket has some not so nice things to say about Communist China!
Written By: Xiao Mao
Directed By: Zhuangzhuang Tian
Taking on Communist China is no small task. The Communist movement within China is a topic all unto itself. From there you encounter a waterfall of topics that all deserve a movie of their own, or even a series of movies. The exploits of countless families once China became a Communist nation would be worth telling. Even something like the change that takes place at a factory could make a great movie. Trying to take a broad look at life under the Communist Mao regime in China seems daunting and ends up being one of the things that holds Lan Feng Zheng back.
The director of Lan Feng Zheng, Zhuangzhuang Tian, wants the simple day to day life of his characters to be the focus. In this regard spending time with Tietou, his mother Chen Shujuan and the revolving door of father figures that pass through his life is certainly an interesting experience. But, it is also in this realm that the film begins to stretch itself too thin. We see too much of this family, the tendrils of the story of the family spread so far out that at times it is confusing what is happening to whom and why. Many times I found myself interested in what new calamity was befalling Shujuan. But, at the same time I often found myself wondering who this character was, or why we were now so far away from the family unit in an unknown factory. Eventually I was able to deduce what was going on, I would never say I was lost. But, Lan Feng Zheng assumes a bit too much about the knowledge its viewer will have in every scene.
These assumptions do not stop at something as subjective as narrative flow. Mr. Tian has crafted a film that expects its audience to know a lot about Chinese history. Obviously this will not always be the case. I’m not an expert on Chinese history, but I did know enough to understand what was happening politically at all times during the film. Still, I can see the political and historical knowledge aspect of the film presenting a huge barrier to many a viewer. However, I am asking a lot of a movie about Chinese history made in China for a Chinese audience to be accessible to someone far removed from that culture and history. The knowledge needed to understand Lan Feng Zheng is a barrier to enjoying the film, but it is not something I can hold against the film.
To get back on track let’s tackle the idea of time in Lan Feng Zheng. The one area where I feel the film excels is in the way it handles the passage of time. Years pass in this story, and if not for Tietou slightly aging it would be near impossible to know that any time has passed. By allowing the film to start in 1953 and look like 1953 when so many years have passed Mr. Tian has made his most provocative statement against the Communism of China. We hear so much about the Rectification Movement, the Great Leap Forward, and so on. Yet, time stands still in China. Years pass us by, and none of these great movements bring about any sort of change. The die hard Communists can march through the street all they want. They can yell as loud as they want. They can declare their efforts a success until they can speak no longer. But time does not lie, and the lack of progression that China makes as a nation during the time period of Lan Feng Zheng is right there on screen for all to see.
Lan Feng Zheng is well acted and I like the minimalist style employed by Mr. Tian. I can see why this film has been banned in China, and I can also understand why some people from outside of China will never be able to get into it. But, I was always interested in what I was seeing and I was amazed with how the film used the passage of time as an attack on Communism. But, I didn’t find Lan Feng Zheng to be the great work of art that it has been lauded as by many a critic. Lan Feng Zheng is a good piece of art with something interesting to say. But Mr. Tian, and the writer Xiao Mao, have tackled a large subject and spread themselves too thin in trying to cover it. With a bit of tightening up and a more reigned in focus Lan Feng Zheng could have been the master work most label it as. But I can’t go that far, that would be spreading myself too thin.