Yang Ban Xi: The Eight Model Works
Time Out says
In this film about the rise and fall of propaganda opera—a strange but fabulous product of China’s Cultural Revolution—director Yan-Ting Yuen sabotages a great subject with too much unconventional vision. A brief history: When traditional opera was banned by Jiang Qing (Madame Mao) at the start of the Cultural Revolution in 1966, yang ban xi became the only acceptable art form of the medium. Of more than 13 such operas, eight were preserved, stunningly, on film. The Red Woman’s Detachment, for instance, features a corps of adorable female ballerina soldiers who march and flit in machinelike precision.
When Jiang was arrested as a member of the Gang of Four, the operas—an integral part of popular culture—quickly fell out of favor, along with many of the artists involved. Yuen’s film begins and ends with a fictionalized Jiang in voiceover, discussing, among other things, the inspiration she drew from Hollywood musicals: “Sometimes you can learn from those Westerners!” Pairing them with interviews of musicians and dancers of the period, which frustratingly skim the surface, the film includes too-fleeting excerpts from the operas.
Also inserted are hip-hop dances performed in the street, perhaps as a way to demonstrate how a younger generation has embraced aspects of the style. Ultimately, Yuen’s film is oppressively muddled: She is unable to tell a story about an art form, because she’s too concerned with trying to be an artist herself. (Now playing; Film Forum.)—Gia Kourlas