Strings of life brilliantly tangled in Chinese 'Kite'

November 17, 1994|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

Like many such sites, the house of Dry Well Lane is banal, nondescript, even dreary. But make no mistake: A great crime occurred here and "The Blue Kite," Tian Zhuangzhuang's great new film, documents it to the most precise detail.

The film, which will be shown twice tonight and tomorrow (at 7 and 9:30) at the Baltimore Museum of Art under the auspices of the Baltimore Film Forum's First Look series, watches the destruction of a family -- its hopes, its dreams, its culture. Quintessentially innocent, family members were crushed, driven apart and ruined; the survivors are left with a melancholy legacy of guilt and rage, and nobody to listen to them. Who would do such a thing? And why didn't the state stop it?

It was done by the state, which is why the state didn't stop it. That's what the state is there to do.

Tian's memoir -- it's based on his own life, which can't have been much fun -- follows a humble Chinese family in a Bejing suburb from the death of Stalin in 1953 to the Revolution of the Red Guards in 1968. Not a pretty passage of time, particularly as we last glimpse hero Tietou (Chen Xiaoman) lying in the mud, having been savagely beaten by zealots, his father and stepfather dead and his mother hauled away to re-education camp. As Tietou soaks in his own blood, he looks into the trees and sees the Blue Kite, tattered and trapped in the trees, a symbol of the freedom that has yet to come.

Tian works at a stately rhythm, eschewing melodrama, gently accruing details. Still, the movie is filled with telling visual motifs -- that kite is an example. He has a natural flair for capturing the pattern of everyday life. We watch as the family, possibly a little naive, tries to get along.

When their property is collectivized, no problem. They are essentially passive, trying so hard to fit in. It's just that they have this irritating little problem that no one appreciates in a totalitarian society: They ask questions. Bad move.

The movie watches as, one after another, Tietou's father and then stepfather (also his uncle) are hauled away. Mum (Chen Shujuan) is completely apolitical and works like a dog to hold it together as society lurches from cataclysm to cataclysm -- from something called the Policy of Rectification in the late 1950s to the full-blooded horrors of the revolution of the Red Guards in 1968. But Tian is less interested in History with a capital "H" than in life with a small "l": how his family just barely and very bitterly got by.

Even in telling the story, he risked great difficulties. The film -- no surprise -- has been banned in China and he is currently under supervision, as the Chinese authorities so delicately put it.

MOVIE REVIEW

"The Blue Kite"

Starring Lu Liping and Zhang Wenyao

Directed by Tian Zhuangzhuang

Released by Kino International

Unrated

***

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