With Dada Chen at NYAFF 2013

With Dada Chen at NYAFF 2013
With Dada Chen at NYAFF 2013

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

ACF 1738: THE RED DETACHMENT OF WOMEN reviewed; screens Friday night November 30th at Asia Society

 The Red Detachment of Women
Directed by FU Jie
With XUE Jinghua
China, 1970, 101 minutes
Color, 35mm.
When: Friday, November 30, 2012, 6:30 pm
Where Asia Society
725 Park Avenue (at 70th Street), NYC

The Red Detachment of Women is a filmed version of a ballet which premiered in 1964. That ballet was adapted from a 1961 film, which was in itself based on a novel by Liang Xin about an actual female division of the Chinese Red Army first formed in 1931.

The story's central character is Wu Qinghua, a peasant girl who escapes from an oppressive landlord called Nanbatian. She is captured, beaten and left for dead. Two members of the Red Army come upon her and point her way to the army's camp. Accepted into the Women's Detachment, she becomes part of an operation to liberate those oppressed by Nanbatian. However, overwhelmed by her hatred of the landlord, she fires at him, prematurely issuing the battle signal. Merely wounded, Nanbatian escapes via a secret tunnel. After being reprimanded, Wu redeems herself with dedication and hard work. In a battle at a mountain pass, Commissar Hong, the male leader of the Women's Detachment, is captured by Nanbatian and his troops. Taken back to Nanbatian's estate, Hong refuses to surrender his troops and dies a martyr's death. The Red Army attacks and defeat Nanbatian troops, killing him in the process. Wu is assigned to take over Hong's position as Commissar of the Women's Detachment, and she and her troops will continue the struggle of the revolution. (For a full description of the ballet, see the excellent article at Wikipedia, which I have utilized in the preceding synopsis, by clicking here.)

The film version made ballerina Xue Jinghua an instant star and deservedly so. Though no expert, I used to do some dance photography and have seen a fair share of ballets and other dance forms. Xue is magnificent, with lovely pointe work and beautiful lines. Qingtang Liu as Hong, the other dancers in significant supporting rolls, and the entire corps de ballet acquit themselves more than admirably. Especially impressive is some of the dancing in which ballerinas are toting around rifles in their hands, something one does not encounter in Western ballets. There are also a couple of songs, which makes Red Detachment a sort of ballet/mini-opera. There are a lot of heroic gestures made, hands pointing and fists clenched in firm determination.

Clearly the film is highly propagandist, and elements of it may seem quaint and amusing. But it has terrific dancing. While there is not much partnering in the traditional Western sense, there is one outstanding example in the battle scene at the mountain pass. Because of its extolment of revolutionary ideals, it was one of the few works of its kind that survived the Cultural Revolution of 1966-1976. In fact, it was performed for U.S. President Richard Nixon when he made his historic visit to China in 1972. It is still being performed in China today.

Much more than a mere artifact,  The Red Detachment of Women is marvelously entertaining and a delight to watch. I hope that this rare screening of the film in a 35mm version gets the full house it so richly deserves.

ACF Rating: 4 out of 4 stars, most highly recommended.

This screening of The Red Detachment of Women is part of the film series Goddess: Chinese Women on Screen which runs through December 8, 2012.

And don't forget about tonight's (i.e., Wednesday's) screening of Two Stage Sisters at 6:30 pm.

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