Director: Chen Kaige
Production: Youth Production Unit, Guangxi Film Studio; Eastmancolor; running time: 89 minutes; length: 8,010 feet. Released 1984. Subtitled version released 1986. Filmed in Mandarin and Shaanxi dialect.
Producer: Guo Keqi; screenplay: Zhang Ziliang, from the essay "Echo in the Valley" by Ke Lan; photography: Zhang Yimou; lighting: Zhang Shubin; editor: Pei Xiaonan; sound recordist: Lin Lin; sound re-recordist: Liu Quanye; art director: He Qun; costumes: Tian Geng and Chen Bona; music: Zhao Jiping; music performed by: The Orchestra and Traditional Music Ensemble of Xi'an Academy of Music; subtitles: Tony Rayns.
Cast: Xue Bai (Cuiqiao); Wang Xueqi (Gu Qing); Tan Tuo (Father); Liu Qiang (Hanhan); The Peasant Waistdrum Troupe of Ansai County.
Berry, Chris, editor, Perspectives on Chinese Cinema, Ithaca, New York, 1985.
Quiquemelle, Marie-Claire, and Jean-Loup Passek, Le Cinéma chinois, Paris, 1985.
Armes, Roy, Third World Filmmaking and the West, Berkeley, 1987.
Clark, Paul, Chinese Cinema: Culture and Politics since 1949, Cambridge, 1987.
Kaige, Chen, and Tony Rayns, King of the Children & the New Chinese Cinema, New York, 1989.
McDougall, Bonnie S., The Yellow Earth: A Film by Chen Kaige with a Complete Translation of the Filmscript, Hong Kong, 1991.
Interview with Chen Kaige, in Skoop (Amsterdam), February 1986.
Elley, Derek, in Films and Filming (London), August 1986.
Frodou, Jean-Michel, "Lettre de Chine," in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), September 1986.
Rayns, Tony, in Monthly Film Bulletin (London), October 1986.
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Jaivin, Linda, in Cinema Papers (Melbourne), March and September 1987.
Film Quarterly (Berkeley), Winter 1987–88.
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Rayns, Tony, in Monthly Film Bulletin (London), March 1988.
Interview with Chen Kaige, in Time Out (London), 17 August 1988.
Chow, R., "Silent is the Ancient Plain: Music, Filmmaking, and the Conception of Reform in China's New Cinema," in Discourse (Bloomington, Indiana), Spring-Summer 1990.
Farquhar, M. A., "The 'Hidden' Gender in Yellow Earth," in Screen (Oxford), no. 2, 1992.
Short Review, in Film en Televisie + Video (Brussels), no. 429, February 1993.
Sutton, D.S., "Ritual, History, and the Films of Zhang Yimou," in East-West Film Journal (Honolulu), vol. 8, no. 2, 1994.
Donald, Stephanie, "Women Reading Chinese Films: Between Orientalism and Silence," in Screen (Oxford), vol. 36, no. 4, Winter 1995.
Lu, A., "Chen Kaige," in Film Comment (New York), vol. 33, September/October 1997.
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Yellow Earth is a pivotal film in China artistically, from the point of view of competing notions of film practice, and explicitly for its place within the continuing debate about film in that country. Both Chen Kaige and his cinematographer Zhang Yimou are members of the "Fifth Generation" of Chinese film makers, the first group of students to graduate from the newly reopened Beijing Film Academy, China's only film school. It had been closed during the Cultural Revolution, and both personally experienced the dislocations inflicted by the policies of the "revolution," having had their formal education curtailed during their teens and suffering exile to distant rural areas to labour alongside the peasants.
The film became a test case for "innovative" or art films. Temporarily withdrawn from circulation it was then re-released and a booklet of articles about it published in China. On its international success at foreign film festivals was hung the polemic of an important speech given in 1986 by the head of the Shanghai Film Studio, demanding that less importance be given to making "salon successes" and more to "popular" films for a local audience. (The debate is outlined by Tony Rayns in Monthly Film Bulletin.) Yellow Earth is a film deeply rooted in both the realities of Chinese peasant life and, more specifically, the facts of recent Chinese history. Set in 1939, its spare narrative tells of the visit of a young soldier from the Eighth Route Army to a poverty-stricken North Shaanxi village researching folk songs for adaptation by the Party for more polemical use. (One credo of Chinese Marxism was to learn from the people.) The film tells of the impact of his visit upon one family—a father, aged beyond his 45 years, his daughter, about to be sold into an arranged marriage, and her "silly" brother.
The dialogue is notably spare, but the film conveys its burden through Chen's monumental direction, Zhang Yimou's impressive cinematography, which refuses to isolate the characters from the bare, played-out fields of the Loess plateau which determine their mode of existence, and the spare and fierce beauty of the songs themselves, each telling its tale of women's oppression. Chen's austere and unwaveringly grave vision allows for no digression into melodrama, social comment, or the merely folkloric. He is not content to document peasant lives. By seeing his story in Shaanxi he ties it to the heart of Chinese Communism. It was there that Mao's legendary Long March terminated in 1935 and that he framed the discourse on art and literature that was to bear such equivocal fruits.
The "timelessness" of the feudal struggle for existence is shown in scenes unflinchingly illustrative of the direst poverty, meals consumed almost before they are served, a bridal feast that makes do with a carved wooden replica of the traditional fish course no one can afford, the simplicity of the domestic arrangements. Unlike earlier films in which soldiers or teachers carried the promise of revolution to distant parts, the result of soldier Gu's arrival is anything but a foregone conclusion. Gu respects the peasants' ways and speaks gently of the possibilities for change, specifically for change in women's conditions. Women soldiers have short hair and read and write. But the girl Ciuqiao's attempt to replace her traditional lament for her plight with Gu's campaign song ends with its promise of Communist victory choked off before she can complete it, by the waters closing over her head as she attempts to swim across the river to Gu's base. It is a scene which stands as an eloquent memorial to the struggles of a nation.
The same metaphorical force binds together the few crowd scenes—that of the dance to the Dragon King pleading for rain is shown to be not so different (it is viewed in much the same way) from the dance marking the farewell of the soldiers, for instance. Chen throughout shows a fine sense of overall structure and great delicacy in the handling of his performers. Yellow Earth is perhaps the boldest and most essentially Chinese of the films produced in that country during the last decade.