Issue 171 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published January 1994 Copyright © Socialist Review



Song of betrayal

Farewell my concubine
Dir: Chen Kaige

Throwing light on modern China
Throwing light on modern China

This is a film on a grand scale. It is the story of two actors from the Peking Opera, one homosexual, one heterosexual, and a prostitute, whose enmeshed lives reflect the dramatic changes in 20th century China. History is powerfully narrated through the lives of individuals.

In the 1920s the nationalist government under Chiang Kai-Shek ruled only the south, unable to impose its will on the warlords who controlled much of the country including Peking. Life and politics were unstable, but there was one anchor: the opera. Wealthy and poor alike could take comfort from it and its stars were heroes.

The film traces the lives of Xiaolou and Dieyi from 1925 when they meet as apprentices struggling with the tough discipline of the Peking Opera school. Actors specialise for life in certain roles, so because of Dieyi's 'feminine' looks he takes on female roles, while Xiaolou's strength gears him for military parts. They study an opera, Farewell my Concubine, the story of a king about to suffer defeat. He begs his concubine to flee, but she kills herself with a sword as the enemy closes in.

By the time of the Japanese invasion in 1937 Dieyi loves Xiaolou deeply, but the latter marries a high class prostitute, Juxian. When Japanese troops enter Peking, there is widespread anti-Japanese sentiment and many arrests, including Xiaolou, who is eventually released when Dieyi performs to secure his freedom. But he condemns Dieyi for capitulating. When in 1945 the defeated Japanese are ousted and the nationalists take over, the two actors join in the celebrations but Dieyi is tried as a traitor. His eventual release is because a high ranking officer wants to hear him sing, ironically since his acceptance of an invitation to perform for the Japanese was his original crime.

The film's story continues through the twists and turns of life after Mao's revolution in 1949, through the Cultural Revolution of 1966 to the late 1970s with the death of Mao and the trial of the 'Gang of Four'. The story is one of coming to terms with change and of betrayal. During the Cultural Revolution, the two men denounce one another, and Xiaolou betrays Juxian with devastating consequences.

Dieyi's character embodies the view of art as self contained, cut off from the wider social struggle, so the distinction between art and life for him is often blurred. The film seems to imply that art has a responsibility to fulfil a political role. But art can fail to develop or to relate to new historical conditions, simply reproducing traditional forms as a young Maoist accuses the Peking Opera of doing.

The film is visually sumptuous, powerfully evoking the different worlds of modern China.
Sabby Sagall

Through the eyes of child

A Perfect World
Dir: Clint Eastwood

This enjoyable film stars Kevin Costner playing an escaped convict, Butch, who takes a small boy hostage on a run from the law across Texas. The film is built around the relationship that develops between the two. In the background is Clint Eastwood who plays Red, the sheriff in charge of the chase.

Butch has become a 'career criminal' since being sent to prison as a boy for joy riding. We learn that Red was responsible for harshly sending Butch down when such an offence normally only got a warning. Butch then is a product of the state's justice system, alienated by his years in the slammer. The responsibility of the state in forming individuals and the terrible job it does, is a central theme developed in the film along with Red's sense of guilt for what he did.

Less clearly worked out are the film's views on the social significance of the relationships between parents and their children. Kids in the film are treated with casual violence by their parents and Eastwood is obviously trying to make a point about the effect this has on them and subsequently on society. Fair enough, if kids are treated badly then it won't do them a lot of good. But without asking why the grown ups behave in this way you end up with a fairly reactionary 'it's the parents to blame' sort of view.

A theme which seems to be one of Eastwood's favourites at the moment is the Kennedy assassination. Just as with his last film, In the Line of Fire, the Kennedy killing of 1963 forms a backdrop to the action, with JFK's fatal visit to Dallas two weeks away in A Perfect World. Whether this is cynical use of Kennedy nostalgia to boost sales or a key philosophical reference point for Eastwood you'll have to work out for yourselves.

With Kevin 'schmaltz' Costner starring alongside a cute little kid there was obviously a danger of the film losing any serious content. But this certainly does not happen. A Perfect World is humorous with some good observations of the world and a sting in the tail.

Throughout, there is a disdain for the law, law men, the FBI and elected officials. The hero is an escaped convict, brutalised by a life in the state prison, struggling to get by in a brutal world. It's interesting that one of Hollywood's biggest stars chooses such subject matter to make what will be one of the biggest films over the New Year.
Lee Humber

Bad breeding

Dir: Stephen Poliakoff

Set in London in 1899, Century makes a welcome change from the average British costume drama. Instead of the usual period setting we have a turnof-the-century world full of change and conflict, a film full of ideas.

Century cleverly captures the excitement of a period of scientific progress and new inventions: the first phones are being installed, tramlines are laid, an electric signboard announces the coming of the new century.

The contradictions of change are clear too. We are shown homelessness and poverty alongside technological advance, and the resentment of the workers who have to operate the new dirty and repetitive machinery.

The film's main characters are active participants in this changing world. Paul Reisner, the central figure, is an ambitious medical student inspired by the great strides being made in medical science.

Doubt and conflict set in when Reisner discovers that his teacher and hero is using new medical expertise to systematically sterilise the women of homeless families.

This episode is based on real history. In this period the eugenics movement campaigned for the sterilisation of the 'degenerate'--the poor and unemployed--arguing that the working classes were becoming too numerous and physically too feeble.

Britain's position as the leading imperial power was under threat for the first time and working class movements across the world were beginning to stir. In these circumstances sections of the British upper and middle classes--including Fabian 'socialists' like the Webbs and Bernard Shaw--were attracted by the ideas of social engineering.

The use and misuse of science becomes the central dilemma of the film, and symbolically the central dilemma of the century. Unfortunately, the theme is not developed.

The film gives no clue to the real social or political origins of the eugenics movement and no sense of a wider political debate or struggle. We end up with a battle between the good guys and the bad guys over the use and abuse of new technology.

Although Century gives a flavour of the bustling and chaotic world of late 19th century Britain, it is not a successful or satisfying film. The characters are not placed in real debates and struggles, so the grand theme falls flat, the plot rambles and the big issues of the 20th century are presented as moral and not political questions.
Chris Nineham


The business of war

Mother Courage and her Children
by Bertolt Brecht

The two world wars this century have sometimes been seen as one continuous war, a struggle over conflicting imperialist aims which the 1919 Treaty of Versailles failed to resolve. The outbreak of fighting in 1939 (the year in which Brecht wrote Mother Courage) was merely the resumption of unfinished business after a 20 year truce.

There is a parallel with the Thirty Years War in Germany in the early 17th century, which Brecht used for his play. A series of struggles between marauding Protestant and Catholic armies, which drew in all the major European powers, plunged the heart of the continent into an era of unprecedented savagery.

Brecht created Mother Courage as an 'ordinary' character trying to make ends meet. With her canteen wagon she wanders across the ruined continent selling drink, food and other vital supplies to the rival armies so that she can support herself and her three children.

As such she invites our compassion. But Brecht doesn't want us to ignore her other side. She survives as a business woman who makes a living out of the war. In her small way she does what the marauding armies do: survive at the expense of others.

The terrible irony of her situation is that what starts as a way of protecting those she loves ends by killing them.

Mother Courage loses her elder son, Eilif, to the army while she is haggling over a belt. She loses her second son, Swiss Cheese, who is killed because she cannot resist haggling over the price of his ransom. There is a further twist to the agony. Courage has to deny that the body of her son is hers in order to avoid further retribution. Finally, she loses her daughter, who is shot, because she is off trading in the city.

So the action of the play is designed to bring judgement to our sympathy. People may be victims of larger historical processes that crush them but what they do, or don't do, contributes to that process.

Commonsense slogans, which pepper the play, are precisely what tie ordinary people to perpetuating the misery that the great and the powerful let loose on the world. We need to respond to the horror of what we see, not by wallowing in facile emotions of pity but by using our minds to think beyond commonsense slogans. We should be distanced from the events on the stage so that we leave the play better able to change the world.

This new version by Hanif Kureishi is lively and racy, the acting is good, and Ellie Haddington as Mother Courage is excellent. So too is the staging. But it's not sharp enough. Mother Courage is a touch too loveable; not enough of the battlefield vulture comes across.

Perhaps this connects with one feature of the funding that would have amused Brecht. A programme slip proudly announces that the production is sponsored by British Petroleum and could not have been mounted without their funding. For a play that looks at the theme of exploitation I can't help wondering whether Brecht or BP is the winner.
Gareth Jenkins
Mother Courage plays at The National Theatre, London.

Colonial style

The Playboy of the West
by Mustapha Matura

The original version of this play, The Playboy of the Western World, was written by Irish playwright John Millington Synge. Set in Ireland at the beginning of this century it caused uproar, billed as a play that showed 'Ireland to the Irish'.

In 1982 Mustapha Mature rewrote it, setting it in 1950s Trinidad. The story starts with Ken, who rushes into Mikey's rum bar in the village of Mayero claiming to have killed his father. The similarities between Ireland at the turn of the century and the West Indies are startling.

The stranger's arrival causes great interest and soon many of the villagers are visiting the bar to catch a glimpse of the man who committed the enviable crime of killing his father--for his father must have been dreadful for him to do such a thing.

The first act is the most political, with references to the bureaucracy surrounding marriage and suggestions that it is all a waste of time.

Strumpet City or seen the film Ryan's Daughter will see similarities between this young Trinidadian woman and young Irish women living in villages.

The play is easily transposed from its original Irish setting to the West Indies. It is not a political paper about how to approach independence or even just a play about how to murder your parents. It is a comedy that quietly puts across good points about the effects of colonialism. Well worth seeing.
Weyman Bennett
Playboy of the West Indies plays at the Tricycle Theatre, London through January.

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