Cinema scholar examines Cultural Revolution

Living in an age where Hollywood produces hundreds of so-called “blockbusters” each year, it can be difficult to say what constitutes as a genuinely good film. Perhaps the secret to an artistic and meaningful experience lies in foreign cinema.

According to Jerome Silbergeld, a leading scholar in Chinese cinema and art history, and professor of Chinese art history at Princeton University, “film is the medium of our age,” and “a really good film, like a really good book, has to be watched and watched and watched . until you start seeing things you never noticed before and they come alive.”

Silbergeld, who lectured at the College on Nov. 8, spoke about the significance of Chinese cinema in the Chinese Cultural Revolution of the 1970s. Although Silbergeld mentioned that two films, both written and directed by Jiang Wen – “In the Heat of the Sun” (1994) and “Devils on the Doorstep” (2000) – as being particularly central to the revolution, he focused primarily on the former.

“In the Heat of the Sun” is a film virtually unseen in America. Silbergeld described it as a “story disguised as a fictional romance,” but in reality, “it’s about politics.”

The film follows the lives of several privileged teenagers living in the era of Maoist China. Their carefree lives are juxtaposed against the reality of the Cultural Revolution. While most children were torn from their families to be “re-educated” by peasants in the countryside, these privileged few were allowed to preserve their innocence, “deconstructing the myths of Chinese equality,” as Silbergeld said. Instead of working in the fields, they swam in pools and engaged in normal summertime activities.

However, as Silbergeld explained, it isn’t always easy to uncover the symbolism in a film. A large portion of his lecture was dedicated to picking scenes apart, frame by frame, and explaining the significance of wandering camera angles, the playful use of props, and suggestive body language. Although many may view the film as a “nostalgic” return to a simpler revolutionary time, Silbergeld argues that it serves a more satirical and ironic purpose.

The film relies on the use of color and subtle images as proof. For example, the film opens with the image of a giant statue of Mao and closes by showing his picture hanging from the rearview mirror of a car.

The use of remembrance and mis-remembrance throughout the film is equally significant. Scenes of the past are shot in color, while scenes of the present are shot in grim shades of gray. The narrator of the film explains that his view of the past has been skewed, and that perhaps he is making the entire story up.

The fragility of memory, truth and history as portrayed in the film, illustrates a similar struggle faced in real life – that the truth can be difficult or impossible to uncover. Conveying the desire to return to a simpler time makes this film, by the Chinese government’s standards, a subversive one. The intense depth of the film allows it to accomplish something that nowadays, is rare. Its ability to ironically portray a tumultuous time in history as affluent and untroubled makes this film a true cinematic masterpiece.