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The New York Film Festival’s retrospective, “(Re)Inventing China,” features Chinese films made from 1949-1966. The films can be slow and overly instructive, but can also contain moving moments.

Communist films aren't exactly easy viewing. Plotlines tend to slowly meander around a didactic message, opening credits sometimes drone on with communist slogans for ten minutes, and the acting ranges from uncomfortably stilted to laughable. But for those with the patience to sit through lines like "How vast are the misfortunes of the common people," the New York Film Festival's first-ever major U.S. retrospective on Chinese communist film provides a rare chronicle of Chinese filmmakers trying to find their voice in a newly socialist state. The retrospective entitled "(Re)Inventing China: A New Cinema for a New Society, 1949-1966" features 20 selected films that were made in China during the crucial 17 years between the Communist takeover and the Cultural Revolution. Because the government poured resources into bringing movies to the most remote provinces, Chinese cinema flourished with the rise of communism, a timely relationship that resulted in tensions between artistic and moralistic tendencies. The best films are those that marry these two tendencies seamlessly, as in the movies "Family" and "This Life of Mine." The first captures the breakdown of a large family, due to the tyrannical rule of reigning patriarch Old Man Kao. Kao's bullying, representative of feudal class oppression, smothers the happiness of the younger generations, creating a convenient microcosm in which the new communist regime is indirectly celebrated by showing the misery of a passing age. Grandson Hui laments that his family "is like a tomb—gloomy and suffocating." This sinister quality is emphasized effectively by long shots of the traditional courtyard home, where tension remains high until drama explodes into public space. Like "Family," "New Year Sacrifice" attempts to prove how much better life is under communism. A warped Cinderella story featuring the excellent actress Bai Yang, it tells the tragedy of a woman with the worst luck imaginable. Lu Xun, a poor but virtuous double-widow is crushed in her attempts to build a new life by a feudal society whose superstitious beliefs brand her as "unlucky." The film ends with her going insane from grief, and gives the message "Such things are gone forever. We are lucky these things do not happen anymore." Also deserving of attention is the film "Two Stage Sisters," which wife of former Chinese leader Mao Zedong described as "a poisonous weed," and the film "Big Li, Little Li, and Old Li," which was influenced by 50s Hollywood comedies. Contrasted with the vibrancy of modern Chinese cinema, known for extreme horror films and frequent kung-fu period pieces, this retrospective may appear colorless. But, genuinely funny and moving moments throb beneath the nationalistic finger-wagging. They point to another, less obvious face of China, one often forgotten in its rising superpower—one in which its ideology still holds a light to the truth of the country—a dichotomy that still holds true today.

new york film festival