In China, The Blue Kite has provoked a political backlash for its bleak depiction of the "anti-Rightist" campaigns of the 1950s as well as of the Cultural Revolution that followed in the '60s. Ostensibly the story of a young boy, Tietou (played as an infant by Yi Tian, as a child by Zhang Wenyao and as a teen-ager by Chen Xiaoman), Tian Zhuangzhuang's film is more an examination of Chinese society as it struggles with the contradictory messages of Maoist communism. We hear the voice of Tietou, who was born in the '50s, early on, and assume we hear irony in it when he announces that the death of Stalin, a person most Chinese knew nothing about, "delayed my parents' marriage, and my birthday" by ten days -- the official period of mourning imposed by the Communist Party.
Tietou grows understandably detached from the society around him. The adults have all been driven nearly mad by the ideological demands of their times. Since Tietou keeps his own council, and refuses to be a good little revolutionary, for a while I felt that I was watching a highly politicized, Chinese version of My Life as a Dog -- with kite flying substituting for pet ownership. But no doubt that reaction was inspired by too much movie-watching rather than attention to history. It's hard to expect charm from a movie about a society obsessed with conformity.
But it's not hard to expect irony, and I badly wanted that from The Blue Kite. I didn't get it. The unrelentingly grim story unfolds with nary a surprise, or even a closely observed human moment. It feels as if the withered hand of Chinese communist orthodoxy reached out to constrict the film.
The main problem lies in the distance the film keeps from its main character. It's supposed to be Tietou's story, but we seldom see events through his eyes. Even his occasional voice-overs serve only to give information rather than his unique and apparently rebellious perspective.
Visually, the movie is beautiful. Every scene looks perfectly composed and thoroughly planned, down to Zhuangzhuang's insistence on blue and red color schemes. But there's no sense of life here, and the story that's told feels overly familiar. We've already seen the victims of the Cultural Revolution being forced through the streets by young, jeering mobs, and Zhuangzhuang fails to make his version of this, no matter how real-life tragic it may be, anything new.
I came away from The Blue Kite admiring its sincerity and technical mastery, but without learning anything. Considering how superficial my knowledge of its subject is, that's saying something.
The Blue Kite.
Directed by Tian Zhuangzhuang. With Zhang Wenyao, Chen Xiaoman, Pu Quanxin, Li Xuejian and Lu Zhong.
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