Xie Jin Was Once China’s Most Famous Director. Do His Films Still Matter?
Xie Jin was an unlikely populist. Known for his unique sense of style, the director behind some of China’s most important and best-loved films was soft-spoken and articulate in the classic Chinese intellectual mould. But his films, deeply influenced by Chinese opera, were characterized by simple and accessible storytelling, as well as an usual sense of intimacy.
That may explain their staying power. Xie, whose work is the focus of a centenary forum at this year’s Shanghai International Film Festival, had a talent for linking the everyday trials and tribulations of ordinary families to those of the nation. In the early days of the People’s Republic, Chinese films essentially had just two themes: the nation’s founding and its ongoing construction. And no one was better at translating those themes into understandable terms than Xie.
But Xie’s films weren’t pure propaganda. The real value of his work — and the reason his films remain relevant even today — is the way they document how societal values and gender roles were reshaped after not one, but two changes in regime: the rise of socialism in the 1950s and the advent of the reform era in the 1980s.
Born in 1923 in the eastern province of Zhejiang, Xie moved with his accountant father to Shanghai as a young man. Heavily influenced by the movies coming out of the city in the 1930s, he first pursued a career in theater before switching to film. He scored his debut as an independent director in 1954, with the Huai opera adaptation “Rendezvous at Orchid Bridge.”
Three years later, the release of “Woman Basketball Player No. 5” catapulted Xie to nationwide fame. The film, which also marked the start of what scholars call Xie’s “woman trilogy,” offers a sunny view of female growth and empowerment under socialism. Echoing the famous Maoist slogan, “Women hold up half the sky,” it showcases women’s rising status and potential in the People’s Republic.
There were limits to this radicalism, however. The primary obstacle faced by the women of “Woman Basketball Player No. 5” is their own spoiled and arrogant natures, which they must overcome through teamwork. Although woman-centric, the film makes copious use of reunions between fathers and daughters or husbands and wives to represent the unity of the New China. Moreover, it suggests that women can only realize their full potential by equalling the achievements of men.
The second film in this “trilogy,” 1961’s “The Red Detachment of Women,” tells a similarly inspiring tale of a woman’s rise from feudal slave to liberated soldier. However, as in “Woman Basketball Player No. 5,” the heroines of “The Red Detachment of Women” only unlock their revolutionary potential through the intervention of male saviors. Despite the two films’ ostensibly feminist spirit, the shadow of patriarchal control is ever-present in the background.
Only in “Two Stage Sisters,” from 1964, does Xie finally begin to move away from these tropes. The titular sisters, former performers turned vagrants, demonstrate a greater degree of agency and initiative than past Xie heroines, and their contrasting personalities, experiences, and life decisions allow Xie to explore the limits of individual effort in the face of an oppressive society.
“Two Stage Sisters” was the first of Xie Jin’s films to achieve international recognition. It also nearly ended his career. The film came under intense fire from radical leftists within China; with the country on the verge of the Cultural Revolution, the film was taken out of circulation — a decidedly somber ending to an otherwise uplifting trilogy.
The next decade marked the nadir of Xie’s life and career. Although he directed some films during the latter stages of the Cultural Revolution, it was “The Legend of Tianyun Mountain,” from 1980, that revived Xie’s career. Ostensibly a tale of the political condemnation and rehabilitation of a male intellectual, the film centers on three women: Song Wei, who loses herself in the political upheaval of an “anti-rightist” campaign; Zhou Yuzhen, who prioritizes herself; and Feng Qinglan, who is selfless. Feng, in particular, is a powerful, if not wholly realized character — a vessel through which Xie portrays the silent resilience of individuals who stand their ground in turbulent times.
That film was followed by 1982’s “The Herdsman” and 1987’s “Hibiscus Town.” Together, the three films are often referred to as Xie’s “reflection trilogy.” But I personally see them as a second “woman trilogy” — an extension of the themes and ideas Xie was exploring before his career was interrupted.
Of all Xie’s films, “The Herdsman” is perhaps the most romantic. It depicts a love that springs out of nowhere, at the moment when it is most needed, and provides the protagonist with a sense of belonging and stability after a long period of loneliness and despair. Although some critics have called “The Herdsman” just another film in which Xie depicts a man bestowing his grace upon a woman, upon closer inspection, the dynamic between its protagonists is more reciprocal and equal than that. The two sexes complement and support one another, lending each other a sense of purpose and faith.
READ MORE: Three Xie Jin Films to Watch, Including “The Herdsman”
As for “Hibiscus Town,” although the female protagonist is not particularly noteworthy, the minor character of Li Guoxiang takes Xie’s portrayal of women into hitherto uncharted territory. Exuding a kind of rough, almost primal energy, Li is a political opportunist whose cruelty and unscrupulousness ultimately alienate her from her community. Though she initially mixes sex and politics to her advantage, she’s ultimately unable to leave her past behind and live a life of integrity.
It’s a sharp turn from Xie’s earlier, often idealized portraits of women, but not enough to assuage his growing number of critics. By the mid-1980s, there was already a minor backlash brewing against what was known as the “Xie Jin approach.” Critics accused Xie of being overly maudlin and lacking depth. A few even argued that his portrayal of women was excessively conservative, saying that Xie’s female characters were subservient, dependent on others, and docile.
They had a point, but they also took for granted the changes in women’s status over the previous 30 years — the same changes Xie spent his career documenting. His films may not have been feminist, but viewed holistically, Xie’s career consistently engaged with issues like women’s role in both the household and the state.
In Xie’s 1962 comedy “Big Li, Little Li, and Old Li,” a wife only chooses to become an athlete with the encouragement of her husband. Twenty years later, in “The Herdsman,” the male protagonist only finds a new lease on life thanks to his wife. Viewed in context, his films reflect less a belief in feminism than shifting gender dynamics: When women take control, the men are relegated to a more passive status, and vice versa. Power is rarely shared equally, and history never flows in two directions at once.
Translator: Lewis Wright; editor: Wu Haiyun; portrait artist: Wang Zhenhao.
(Header image: Wang Zhenhao and Ding Yining/Sixth Tone)