Tale of two movies: Dealing with an unpleasant past

October 03, 2017 11:10
Director Feng Xiaogang toned down his screenplay in Youth in order to get past Chinese censors who are wary about its sensitive subject. Photo: Internet

The premiere of seasoned mainland movie director Feng Xiaogang’s latest blockbuster, Youth, which was initially scheduled for Friday, Sept. 29, was suddenly called off for screening during the Oct. 1 National Day holiday period. 

It is widely believed the reason mainland officialdom called an abrupt halt to the opening of Youth is that the movie touches on some highly sensitive subjects -- the Cultural Revolution and the Sino-Vietnamese War of 1979 -- which they worried might open up old wounds and ruin the current social harmony in the mainland.

As the Communist Party holds its 19th national congress this month, it is apparent that the leaders in Beijing are determined to make sure nothing would go wrong during the meeting.

However, in contrast, the recent Korean movie, A Taxi Driver, starring the award-winning actor Song Kang-ho, which is set against the backdrop of the Gwangju Uprising in 1980, has so far become the highest-grossing movie in South Korea this year, and has secured a nomination for Best Foreign Language Film in next year's Oscars.

The 1980 Gwangju pro-democracy uprising and its subsequent brutal suppression by the military regime have been regarded as a national trauma by the South Koreans. The uprising also marked a watershed in the country’s democratization process.

That the fate of Youth and A Taxi Driver, both of which deal with sensitive historical events, differs so greatly indicates a huge difference in the mindsets of Chinese and South Korean leaders when it comes to facing their countries’ unpleasant history.

As a matter of fact, Feng self-censored and toned down his screenplay in Youth, which, if anything, touches on the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese War briefly.

If Youth is said to reflect on history, such reflection goes to a certain degree and levels off. The film reflects at most on a war scene that lasts six minutes and shows the cruelty brought about by war. The film also reveals one's destiny that is out of his or her own free will by making use of the miserable experiences of the film’s protagonists.

Besides, perhaps in order to play it safe and not to upset the party leadership, Feng refrained from reflecting on some of the more sensitive and embarrassing issues such as why 500 Chinese soldiers had been killed by their own poorly manufactured weapons during the Sino-Vietnamese War. They were among 6,000 fatalities in that war.

Unfortunately, the fact that Youth was still barred from screening at the last minute despite Feng’s precautions and restraint suggests that our incumbent Chinese leaders just don’t have the same kind of broad and open mind as their South Korean counterparts when it comes to dealing with their country’s unpleasant past.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Sept. 29

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Hong Kong Economic Journal contributor