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Xie Jin :a film director who survived the cultural revolution
Chinese film director who survived the cultural revolution
- The Guardian,
- Monday October 20 2008
- Article history
The life of the Chinese film director Xie Jin, who has died aged 84, would make an excellent movie in itself, reflecting the turbulent history of his country in the 20th century. He shone brightest among those contemporaries who emerged after the establishment of the people's republic in 1949 and was one of the few directors to continue to make films during and after the cultural revolution. It was not an easy ride. Accused of bourgeois humanism, he was forced to do manual labour in the countryside and spent time under house arrest. Later, he was accused by some of being an opportunistic party hack because he was enlisted to help Mao Zedong's wife, Jiang Qing, direct the "model opera" films during her time as a member of the Gang of Four.
Born in Shaoxing, Xie grew up during the Japanese invasion of the 1930s and attended the Jiang-an school of dramatic art in Szechuan, where he studied Ibsen, Shakespeare and Chekhov. In 1949, shortly before the end of the Chinese civil war, he got a job as assistant director at the Datong film studio in Shanghai, directing his first film, A Crisis, four years later. Xie, who admitted to being influenced by Soviet cinema, which he said had "a profound moral seriousness and depth", soon became the most celebrated of the directors who formed what was to be known as the Third Generation.
It was his third film, Woman Basketball Player Number Five (1957), that established his reputation as a "woman's director". It depicted the different fortunes of sportsmen and women before and after the birth of the new China. By combining socialist realism with the aesthetics of Hollywood melodramas, Xie created an extremely popular genre. "My childhood memory remains full of oppressed, victimised women," he explained in an interview with Da Huo'er in Jump Cut. "Under feudal oppression, the suffering of men could not be compared to that of women. To say the least, a man was allowed to keep several wives, while a widow was never permitted to marry again. It would bring too much shame on her family."
Red Detachment of Women (1961), a classic revolutionary film, follows Qiong Hua from an abused servant of a cruel warlord to her role as heroic leader of a troop of women soldiers, after being rescued by a party representative. It was a dramatic examination of the role of the revolution in reshaping attitudes to gender. The film revealed a vivid sense of colour, composition and inventive camera angles, as did the finely crafted Two Stage Sisters (1965).
This film tells of two girls who become stars of a travelling opera group. One is seduced by materialism, gives up singing, marries and drifts into misery; the other commits herself to the revolution and forms a women's cooperative opera company. Although probably Xie's masterpiece, he recalled: "I was forced to change the script. I couldn't finish it the way I would have liked. If I could redo the second part now, it would improve the entire film."
Two Stage Sisters was one of the last films made before the cultural revolution, during which only six films were made, all of them crudely propagandistic though visually striking, some being revised ballet versions of previous films, such as The Red Detachment of Women (1970). Xie was released from labour camp to direct three of them, aesthetically and politically at odds with the rest of his work.
After the cultural revolution, film production picked up, much of it highly critical of that period. Xie answered criticism that he had betrayed his conscience by making Legend of Tianyun Mountain (1980), which presented a bleak picture of a young girl pressured by Red Guards to leave her intellectual lover for political reasons. Hibiscus Town (1986), which detailed some of the sins of the 1960s, was a huge hit in China, and although cut by more than 30 minutes in the export version, it remains a powerful study of an era as seen through the eyes of a brave victim. The main strength of the film is its avoidance of rhetoric and stereotypes - even the local activist villains appear all too human - and its ability to move between political and social satire, comedy and realism, within the framework of a sweeping melodrama.
Xie's films continued to be popular in China throughout the 1980s, though he was pushed aside on the international stage by the Fifth Generation of film-makers - those directors who graduated from the Beijing Film Academy in the late 1970s (the most famous being Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou).
Xie's social concern and sense of historical context - and the fact that he avoided politically sensitive subjects - meant his films were more acceptable to the regime than some of those by the Fifth Generation, though he avoided blatant nationalism and simplistic messages. For example, The Last Aristocrats (1989), partially shot in the US, deals with the lives of three young middle-class Chinese women studying in America, and the difficulties they face when trying to return to their homeland after 1949. Though certainly unflattering to life under capitalism, it showed sympathy for its victims.
At around $15m, The Opium War (1997), Xie's penultimate film, was one of the most expensive to be made by a Chinese studio. Pointedly released to coincide with the return of Hong Kong, it tells of the clash between two empires, the British and the Qing dynasty, in the 1840s. Although anti-colonialist, it is balanced in its treatment. While shown worldwide to much acclaim, Woman Soccer Player Number 9 (2001), in which Xie returned to the subject of women's sports, was meant for home consumption.
Xie was the only Chinese director to be made a member of both the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the Directors' Guild of America. He leaves his wife; a son predeceased him.
• Xie Jin, film director, born November 21 1923; died October 18 2008