I saw two Chinese films this weekend set during the Maoist era. One was ‘The Ditch’ (in France: ‘Le Fossé’), directed by Wang Bing, who is mainly known for his marathon documentaries on socio-economic transformations in contemporary China (none of which I’ve seen). This is one of the most horrifying films I’ve seen in I don’t know how long. It takes place in 1960, in the Jiabiangou Reeducation Camp in Gansu province—in the middle of nowhere in the Gobi desert—, where intellectuals—including many party members—who were arrested and condemned during the 1957-61 “anti-rightest campaign” were sent to perform slave labor and starve to death. It was one small camp in the Chinese Gulag. The pic is based on testimony by survivors recounted in a book by Yang Xianhui, which has been translated into English (here and here). It is objectively a very good film but is hard to watch, as the nightmarish reality it depicts was precisely that: the reality of China during the Maoist era. I won’t recount particular scenes, as one may read them in the reviews (here, here, and here; et critiques françaises ici). Though one won’t spend an enjoyable two hours watching it, it should nonetheless be seen, particularly by those who had—and may still have—the slightest illusions that communist regimes were somehow more just than others despite their dictatorial nature, or who still find something to defend in communism such as it really existed.
I know something about China of the period, having been a teenage Maoist in the early-mid 1970s, when I read Edgar Snow and other apologetics for the Maoist regime (and avoided critical accounts, e.g. Simon Leys), and supported what (I thought) was happening there. I did likewise for Castro’s Cuba, Vietnam, and other Third World Marxist regimes and guerrilla movements, BTW (though never liked the Soviet Union or its Eastern European satellite states). It was the period, now long past.
The other film was ’11 Flowers’, directed by Wang Xiaoshuai. It is more or less autobiographical, set in 1975 in a town in inland Guiyang province, where armaments factories were relocated by the regime from Shanghai and other coastal cities, and their personnel along with them—but where members of the urban educated classes condemned during the Cultural Revolution were also sent to do manual labor. The main character is an 11-12 year old boy—the director in his youth—who, along with his pals, observes the political convulsions of the Maoist era in its final years. There is a plot and which comes together in the second half of the film, where one gets a glimpse into one of the countless personal tragedies of the Cultural Revolution. The pic is worth seeing. For Hollywood press reviews see here and here, and French ones here, here, and here. And one may see a trailer here.