Yellow Earth (Chen Kaige, 1984)
Mandarin Title: Huang tu di
The parched landscape, so prominently displayed and magnificently shot by cinematographer Zhang Yimou in Chen Kaige's film adaptation of a novel entitled Echo in the Deep Valley, is more than just a setting for the tale of a Communist officer who lives with an impoverished farming family. The arid valleys paint an accurate picture of a people where poverty and misfortune has been so ingrained, it has seeped into their culture as their songs are melancholic and woeful, and their traditions (wooden fishes are served during weddings since they cannot afford real fishes) have been etched to exemplify the extreme austerity they have been accustomed to.
Chen's Yellow Earth, regarded by many as the quintessential film of the Fifth Generation of Chinese filmmakers (it also voted as the fourth best in a list of the best one hundred Chinese films ever made), speaks through these images of dried-up lands and cloudless skies and painfully wailful songs. It speaks of a people who despite their mournful situation has come to be contented of that fact of life, that there will be times that the sky will withhold precious rain and the crops will stop growing. It's a cyclical truth they have, for so many years, endured. The solutions they have crafted for the ingrained poverty are hardly novel, like marrying off their daughters to wealthier even if older villagers, or for dire situations, performing a rain ritual to appease pagan gods. Despite the seemingly inhumane and unmodernized facilities that make living somewhat more bearable, it has become a way of life that is accepted, undisturbed and somewhat satisfying for its resulting ironic bliss knowing that their fate is beyond their paltry will.
Gu (Wang Xueyin) is an idealistic Communist officer. He beams with pride of the task he carries, to collect folk songs for the army fighting off the Japanese invaders. His exuberance is uncharacteristic of the pitiful and dry locale, who politely exchange his queries with respectful smiles and answers. The family he lives with consists of a widowered farmer (Tan Tuo), his fourteen year old daughter Cuiqiao (Xue Bai), dreadful of her impending wedding to a wealthier man, and his son Hanhan (Liu Quiang), selectively quiet. They are at first cautious and careful with Gu, hospitably preparing his foot bath and other amenities inasmuch as they can but Gu's enthusiasm breaks the barriers of forced politeness, and the family opens up to his detailed stories of the Communist campaign: of the equal opportunities for men and women in the army, of the primitivity of the longstanding traditions that the poor village have accustomed to (especially of the forced marriages), and of modernity of thought. These ideals spark something within Cuiqiao: a chance for escape, a rekindled hope that there is life beyond the desert-like land that is ironically entangled by the Yellow River.
Bitingly ironic, Cuiqiao drowns while rowing against the currents of the river on her way to the capital to join the army, singing and barely finishing the verse "It's communists who save the people." Despite the political undertones (the film is very strongly critical of the government), it was never banned in China unlike Chen or Zhang's later films; perhaps the message was so subtly enveloped by the wailing songs of the villagers, the panoramic vistas of the desolate land, and the hopeful enthusiasm of officer Gu's stories that the film felt more like propaganda than anything. The film is set during the Japanese invasion, but the living standards of rural China when the film was made haven't changed, making the promises of Gu and his government even more severe. It is that hope rekindled by the promise, ultimately betrayed, that is destructive disturbance that Yellow Earth so eloquently tells us of.
The promises are drowned along with the girl who banked her future on them as the rest of the villagers succumb to what they know best and stay put and pray to their gods to cure their land of that infernal drought. It's a fitting conclusion, instead of wrapping the film with Cuiqiao's depressing demise. It puts a closure to the harmful disturbance Gu has introduced to the village's consciousness, very volatile to any semblance of hope. That to rely on the promises of a government whose only presence is an officer who siphons songs to boost army morale is utter futility, and that reliance on that traditions that have been carried on from one poor generation to another to merely survive the cruelty of the land is comparably not all that bad.