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'The Blue Kite' (NR)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
August 05, 1994

When the Chinese authorities first viewed Tian Zhuangzhuang's "The Blue Kite," they were distressed by what they referred to as its "political leanings" and banned it from exhibition in China. Now that the 1992 film has finally come to America, it is easy to see why.

A sweeping, powerful work from a filmmaker of masterly talents, "The Blue Kite" is the most scathing indictment yet of life under Chairman Mao. Beginning in the 1950s with the rectification movement and moving through the Great Leap Forward and the violent extremes of the Cultural Revolution, the picture demonstrates -- perhaps better than any film on the subject -- how the winds of revolutionary change affect the lives of real people.

The year is 1953, and the film's characters are all gathered around a single courtyard in the bustling heart of Beijing. At the center of the group are Shujuan (Lu Liping) and Shaolong (Pu Quanxin), a modest young elementary school teacher and librarian who during their marriage service express their revolutionary fervor by toasting a portrait of Mao Zedong and serenading their friends with a rousing song about peasants and work quotas.

A year later, Shujuan gives birth to Tietou, a round mound of trouble who acts as the film's narrator and guide, and who in this early section -- titled "Dad" -- introduces us to the simple pleasures of these idyllic days of laughter and innocence.

If the recent films to come out of China have a common element, it's their tendency to demote the role of the personal and the psychological in their characters in favor of the social and the political. But "The Blue Kite" gets the balance of these forces right. Tian expresses historical events in human terms, showing us, for example, that Shaolong is sent to a labor reform camp partly because a scapegoat was needed and partly because he chose an unfortunate moment to go to the bathroom.

Shujuan marries three times, and with each husband creates a new section of the film. In each, the director demonstrates how the strictures of party disrupt her family's happiness and drive them further away from their earlier optimism. Yet even in the face of these upheavals, Shujuan clings to Tietou as her one true source of fulfillment and delight, and by the end, the film develops into a moving portrait of the bonds between mother and child.

"The Blue Kite" may meander slightly as it moves through its 15 years of suffering and perseverance, but Tian's poetic gifts sustain us even when his narrative skills falter. This prodigiously talented filmmaker gives us not only the sweeping currents of cultural strife but the more ordinary rhythms of family meals as well. "The Blue Kite" combines a sumptuous lyricism with fearless social critique. It's a rare accomplishment -- moving, beautiful and brave.

The Blue Kite is not rated.

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