How Yellow Earth Changed History & Lives

Yellow Earth (1984)

From today’s perspective, it is difficult to encompass the full scope in which Yellow Earth (1984, dir. Chen Kaige) and discussions around the film changed the history of Chinese cinema and radiated its influence on the young generation of film professionals, artists and audience. The attitude towards the filmmakers labelled in the early 1980s by Tony Rayns as “Fifth Generation” has become conflicted when they became entangled in the marketisation and internationalisation of Chinese film industry. However, Yellow Earth’s power to affect the viewers continues regardless of the subsequent course of events. Maybe that is why Jia Zhangke, nowadays himself an iconic filmmaker whose relation with the older generation of filmmakers was rough, still admits that it was Yellow Earth that made him want to become a director.

Almost four decades after its first restricted screenings in China and ground-breaking success at the 9th Hong Kong International Film Festival, Yellow Earth marked its place within the canon of global art cinema and continuously attracts the attention of film critics and scholars. Critical analysis published soon after the film’s premiere (Esther Yau for Film Quarterly) is now  supplemented by articles written from the historical perspective (Tristan Shaw for SupChina) as well as introductions in the form of video essays. The film can be reinterpreted endlessly and lead to new understandings. On the occasion of  Yellow Earth screening as part of the 50/50 collection celebrating the 50th anniversary of International Film Festival Rotterdam, I started to wonder what was the reception of the film upon its premiere? What was the story behind it?

To begin to understand the weight of film history built around Yellow Earth, I started to look for any information related to the film’s original run through the film festival circuit. Bonnie S. McDougall’s account of the film’s production, release and reception proved to be a goldmine. With regard to Yellow Earth’s screening at the 15th IFFR in 1986, she mentions that the festival audience rating ranked the film fifth out of a hundred films shown that year. It would be amazing to find at least one person, who has seen the film back then as a regular festival-goer and ask about any impressions or memories from the screening.

McDougall writes that Huub Bals “had seen the film at the Ninth Hong Kong International Film Festival, reported that he had no trouble in obtaining it, but that he had no response to his invitation to the director to attend.” Later it was revealed that the invitations to Rotterdam, as well as Locarno and Edinburgh, were declined by the Film Board on behalf of Chen Kaige who did not know about them at all. The restrictions on Chen Kaige’s overseas visits were strangely selective and changeable. He could go to Hong Kong, Tokyo, Hawaii as well as shortly tour through the U.S. but Europe seems to have been off limits. It was Yellow Earth’s cinematographer Zhang Yimou and not director Chen Kaige who represented the film in Cannes, which probably might have had some influence on the two filmmakers’ further careers.

The refusal to allow the filmmaker to travel freely through the film festival circuit had two main reasons. Firstly, Yellow Earth stirred political controversy and heated film debate in China. Conservative filmmakers and film critics attacked the innovative way of cinematic storytelling, a new look at the history of China as well as the communist movement, but the key problem was the film’s ambiguity which was unacceptable from the perspective of CCP officials. However, in contrast to the film One and Eight (1983), that predates Yellow Earth and might be considered as the Fifth Generation’s inauguration if it had not been shelved for a few years, Chen Kaige’s debut was allowed to be screened at the Hong Kong International Film Festival. After the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration from the CCP’s perspective, the city was not considered as foreign territory anymore and for many years Hong Kong was the best place where filmmakers from the PRC , Taiwan and local film industry could meet and talk about 1990s transnational projects that also made film history. Secondly, following the screening at Hong Kong and IFFR, Yellow Earth achieved immense overseas success, which started to look very suspicious in the eyes of Chinese film industry officials. The China Film Import & Export Corporation held a monopoly for film distribution in China up until 1993 and in this role they only bought a few copies of Yellow Earth from Guangxi Film Studio. However, this negative reception together with its challenging and very limited release in China marred the reputation not only of the CCP Film Bureau but also that of the local film elites. What was it about the film that made it different from other post-Cultural Revolution films screened in Berlin or Cannes?

Yellow Earth can be seen as a very unorthodox reworking of the “worker, peasant, soldier” theme known from Maoist cinema. Set in 1939, two years after the start of the Second Sino-Japanese war. Gu Qing, a soldier from the propaganda department of the CCP Eighth Route Army, travels through Northern Shaanxi to collect the folk songs. He is to reappropriate the melodies and substitute the original text with uplifting lyrics praising communism as the road to liberation and progress. The familiar tunes would unite the communist soldiers and cadres with the local peasants, ideally turning into one small brick in building the national identity of the anticipated future society. Gu Qing arrives in a small village and is hosted by a widowed peasant living with his teenage daughter, Cuiqiao, and younger son, Hanhan. He keeps helping them with their daily chores and collects the songs they sing while working. The cultural clash soon becomes obvious when Gu Qing, most probably an urban-educated intellectual, starts to talk about gender equality and women’s liberation as part of the CCP’s agenda. The shadow of arranged marriage and possible future of domestic violence looms over Cuiqiao and becoming a soldier of the communist army offers a way to escape her fate. Gu Qing’s stories about the realities in the communist base in Yan’an project an idea of a promised land she is desperate to reach.

Yellow Earth

Yellow Earth was subjected to mythologisation already in the initial stage. In his book Dennis Lo reviewed the documents from the pre-production process during which Chen Kaige, Zhang Yimou and art director He Qun travelled throughout the northern Shaanxi province. In Chen’s narrative, the routine report from the pre-production process was turned into an account of a pilgrimage in search of the essence of the Chinese nation. The director writes about the profound impression that visiting the Mausoleum of the Yellow Emperor and seeing the Yellow River ha left on him. Chen Kaige comes close to national myth-making and revolutionary romanticism. The pre-production practice of the filmmakers working on Yellow Earth was also quite unlike other reports written after the state-approved process of “experiencing life” (tiyan shenghuo 体验生活) according to which the filmmakers who grew up in the urban environment had to spent several months living in the rural areas in which they were to shoot a film. The young generation of filmmakers all spent years working in the countryside as re-educated youth, therefore their perspective was naturally different. Dennis Lo brilliantly notices that Gu Qing is the filmmakers’ alter ego, guilty of projecting dreams of the new society and failure to serve not the anonymous “people” but concrete individuals. Detached studious observation has been replaced by a great deal of self-reflection but also pure romanticism with all its paradoxes, ambiguities and balancing between fiction and reality. It might just be what made Yellow Earth so powerful.

I first watched the film in my early 20s. It was not released on DVD in Poland, but it has just started to be available on YouTube in 2013. While reading Bonnie S. McDougall’s overview of the film’s international exhibition and the controversies surrounding it, I laughed to myself when I read about the film’s premiere at Warsaw Film Festival: “In 1985 there had been plans to enter The Yellow Earth at the Moscow Film Festival but in the end it was not shown. It first reached Eastern Europe at the beginning of April 1986, at the Polish International Film Festival in Warsaw. According to the Chinese press, however, the film was given a very cold reception. At the evening session on 8 April, the 1000-odd seats at one cinema were all vacant; even more telling, at the afternoon session the following day, the small handful of people who did turn up began to leave ten minutes after the start of the film. At the evening performance the same thing happened, so that at the end of the screening only a dozen or so people remained in the auditorium. Critical reception was also poor, the reviews commenting unfavourably on the simplicity of the plot, the blandness of the content, the slowness of the action and the general lack of artistry. There is no reason to doubt the accuracy of the Chinese report, but it would have been interesting to hear the uncensored responses of the few who did sit through the whole film.” Tales from the Eastern Bloc do not cease to amaze.

For me, Yellow Earth was the first film in which I saw a communist that was a person not a demonised or ridiculed mannequin, an artefact of the bad past. Being born just after the fall of the Berlin Wall, except for the few waves of nostalgic revival in the early 2000s based on the fetishisation of products and fashion of the People’s Republic of Poland, I remember there was one way of talking about communism: only in the most derogatory terms as a time of extreme retrogression of culture, economy, politics, and most importantly, morale. From the geopolitical perspective, the development of communism in each country is obviously very different. The new system brought many things to Poland, but definitely not liberation and sovereignty. Even though the two cases are so distinct, I felt some sense of shared history and started to see a different perspective on the past. Yellow Earth showed me another way of looking at history, but also ignited my continuous fascination with the early days of the communist movement in China, the status of art workers and the twisted relation between grassroots and official culture in the People’s Republic of China.

After rewatching Yellow Earth recently, I once again felt the surreality embedded in the film. The multiple scenes shot during magical hour (either dusk or dawn), strange but mesmerising framing, contrast between outdoors and indoors, the rapid camera movements during the hectic drum dance and slow motion in the scene of rain ritual all contribute to Yellow Earth’s immersive quality. The film captivated me as much as during the first viewing, but I found myself paying attention to different details. In the opening sequences of the film, the camera focuses several times on Cuiqiao observing the wedding reception, all full of men dressed in black clothes and wearing white scarfs on their heads. Except for her, Yellow Earth is almost devoid of women. There is one extra during drum dance in Yan’an, a brief scene featuring another young bride and one showing matchmaker. Cuiqiao is the only female character who speaks in the film. Whereas in my early 20s I identified more with the character of Gu Qing, now I saw Yellow Earth as sort of a gothic tale told from the perspective of a girl who dreads her fate to the point that this fear distorts her vision of reality. 

In conclusion of her book McDougall writes: “the fact that [Yellow Earth] has meant so many different things to so many different kinds of people is also a testimony, to Western eyes at least, to the artistic subtlety and philosophical depth of the film, just as its appeal to audiences unconscious of or uninterested in the film’s political messages is testimony to its cinematic skill.” Yellow Earth is one of these films that can influence or completely change a person’s life. It has changed the lives of the filmmakers who worked on it but also continues to affect young generations of film professionals. It has reinvented Chinese cinema both domestically and internationally. It allowed many outsiders like me to not only become fascinated with the history, culture, politics of contemporary China, but also discover a piece of personal history within the film.

This Essay International Film Festival Rotterdam article was published in April 2021