Monday, 17 June 2013

The Big Parade: A Small Peek through the Great Wall

Good to see misleading posters are a cross cultural Phenomenon

I'm in the process of moving house which means most of my books and DVD's have been boxed up and are out of reach. As such I've been reacquiting myself with the few I have left, one of them happens to be The Big Parade a film made in the People's Republic of China in 1987 by Director Chaige Ken who in China has reputation for being a pain for the Censorship board as most of his work often contains something they'll find objectionable. With comments like "It is a country that has no past. Political regimes systematically robbed us of history and it's only now that we are beginning to get it back." its not hard to see why.

Though interestingly Western critics would sometimes write off Chaige's films as Chinese propaganda films, so he took fire from both sides. On the surface Big Parade was easy to dismiss as a propaganda film since it is shows the People's Liberation Army (PLA) in a very positive light and vindicates its structure and Authoritarianism (but there are countless films the world over that do the same for their armed forces). Its basically the new recruits hate their Sergeant but as time goes on they learn to appreciate his methods story. and the Censors took out most of its more critical scenes, in fact they completely changed the ending and its very obvious. But it does show a lot of criticism and awareness even after the cuts.

Oh and like Pulgasari Big Parade is obscure but available as a DVD (though as a sort of legal import with hard subs) or via a torrent or download somewhere. Its also a shame because I think its a very interesting film that tells us a lot about the society in which it was created and not just because of its heavy handed treatment by the censors.

Essentially the film is about a PLA unit formed and put through an extensive training program for participation in a parade in Beijing during National Day. This means that their drill must absolutely perfect both timings and paces are practised and measured constantly. And the main source of suspense is who will make the final cut and can the men pull themselves together. Again that isn't really anything new but the setting is quite interesting as is the quite brutal depiction of life at the training ground.

 Now because I don't speak Mandarin and have to rely on the subtitle's I can't really comment too much on the dialogue. I will say though the subtitling on my copy seemed pretty good, no cases of weird jargon or nonsense conversations. It also seemed to match the emoting of the actors too. But you'd have to ask an actual Chinese person to make sure if you're really curious.

One thing I noticed when looking for a copy was that all the limited reviews and online stubs kept going on about how beautiful the photography and visuals were, having watched the film several times I can add my agreement to that. The whole film looks in a word real. The barracks looks like a barracks the outdoor scenes look very warm, the choreography has the appropriate military precision. And if the rumours about some of the cut content are to be believed Chaige is very skilled at using shadow imagery.

And despite its rather dull (on the surface) plot of training for a parade, essentially making this a war film without any exciting war, Big Parade holds interest very easily for its 95 minute run time.Because the focus is on the men in the unit and how they cope with the PLA and by extension Chinese society and the expectations and stresses it puts on them. While the film does end up supporting the system by showing the "merits" of collectivism guided by benevolent superiors it doesn't change the fact that for most of those 90 minutes the official way of things gets heavily criticised for the demands it makes of its own people. For example a brief few scenes are about several veterans experiences in Vietnam. That's when China invaded Vietnam to protect the regime of Pol Pot from an invasion by the Vietnamese. Instead of glorifying the war or justifying it the film focuses on the trauma of experiencing death and injury.

The closest the film gets to an action set piece

And despite the attention of the censors you get a clear impression that the Parade and its ridiculously severe training regime are the product of meaningless aggrandisement by the party and military heads. The training resembles torture, and despite the absence of combat training puts the recruits through hell. One of the soldiers is bow-legged which screws up his pace lengths so he tries binding his legs to straighten them out.The film goes on piling on the pain, at one point the entire unit must stand to attention for two whole in the baking sun with no shade. If you've never been fortunate enough to do something like this (I have, but an hour was my maximum) that doesn't sound too bad. But believe me its rough, in fact in most armies that practice is a form of punishment, and several men collapse and or throw up during the two hour wait.They do all of this and more for a mere four minute long drill routine, that's how long their unit will be visible in the parade, just four minutes and yet many young and not so young men will severely injure themselves for a month for those four minutes of marching through Chang'an avenue (which in 1989 would see PLA tanks and soldiers slaughter the students and workers of Beijing) past the Great Hall of the People and other governmental buildings.

Not in the film but an example of just how big these things can be
With that said its not really surprising the patience of the censors was worn out by the time the film was completed. As I've said most of the really notable re edits concern  the ending of the film so I won't say to much, but it was clearly an attempt to protect the image of the PLA as an institution which becomes obvious when you see the films conclusion. The original ending was to use silhouettes against a sunset. I have no idea why that was so shocking but it must have been since the ending was completely altered and there is no subtlety at all to be found in the last few minutes before the credits role.

An explanation of the films somewhat schizophrenic message is found in the political realities of 1980's China. This was the era of Deng Xiaoping and his push to open up the Chinese economy to the world market. Part of the process of encouraging foreign capitalists to invest was detoxifying the reputation of "Red China" this meant gradual weakening of the restrictions on artists and intellectuals so long as they continued to practice self restraint, especially in there criticism. As a result there was a brief blossoming of the arts and commentary in China. But as the old saying goes "Give and inch and they'll take a mile" apparently the artistic types couldn't help themselves and started pushing into territory the authorities weren't comfortable with and once again the censorship bodies became more active in response.

HARSHLY, AND WITH a dramatic suddenness, the climate of free expression that blossomed last summer and developed throughout the fall in China has chilled. Nearly all intellectual and creative life has been stifled by a renewed compulsory obeisance to Marxist and Maoist dogma. Young intellectuals and artists who just six months ago captivated foreign scholars and journalists with their refreshing candor now refuse to meet with them for fear of being singled out for criticism, or even banished to some remote province.
China's senior leadership continues to reiterate its commitment to strengthening contacts with the outside world. Communist Party leader Deng Xiaoping's regime is desperately intent on presenting a facade of civility and openness to the rest of the world. But the continuing dilemma confronting China is whether it can absorb technical accomplishments without embracing the ideas that gave rise to those achievements. The fear, simply put, is that somehow Chinese culture will be undermined and destroyed if Western culture intrudes.

The Big Parade was a victim of this new wave of ideological control, it spent two years after completion being re edited and scrutinised by the censors before its release and was removed without explanation form international film festivals to limit its impact. This is quite a shame, I quite like the censored version and can only assume the original free of interference would of been much better. Though as it stands the film, both what it shows and the struggle it had getting to the screen make a very fascinating look at the PRC its official culture and how it operates.  Well worth a watch for Asian cinemaphiles and "Red" sociologists.

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