YELLOW EARTH (Chen Kaige, 1984)

The following is one of the entries from my 100 Greatest Asian Films list, which I invite you to visit on this site if you haven’t already done so. — Dennis

“Of all us poor folk, girls are the saddest.”
     Reputedly the first work of the “fifth generation” of Chinese filmmakers, Huang tu di is gorgeous—Zhang Yimou is the color cinematographer—and poetic. Chen Kaige captures a dream of national unity under the threat that the Japanese pose in the late 1930s. Qing Gu is a young revolutionary soldier who visits the northern wilderness in order to collect folk songs to inspire comrades and bind them to the common folk. Staying with a peasant farmer, he discovers that the songs, all sad, wed haunting melodies to lyrics such as “Suffering is forever, sweetness is short.” Gu inspires Cuiqiao, the widower’s 13-year-old daughter, who wants to join the Communist army to experience the equality with men that “Brother Gu” from the south has told her about. In the world with which she is familiar, marriages are arranged for girls, whose singing gives them their only voice of freedom—the “freedom” of lament.
     Chen combines captivating lyricism and a documentary-style attention to the harsh conditions of the peasants’ lives. (Stunning: amidst drought, the communal prayer for rain.) The flowing Yellow River interrupts the mostly static shots of daunting terrain. In one radiant shot, Cuiqiao’s carrying buckets of water from the river appears to extend the river’s motion. Nature is arrayed against the people, but they are also a part of it.
     Qing must rejoin his outfit. “Take me with you,” Cuiqiao pleads. It is against “the rules.” “Can’t the rules be changed?” she asks. “We depend on rules for our cause.” But Qing does promise to return. “I’m afraid I shall not see you again,” Cuiqiao sings out as he leaves, a pair of reverse long shots recording the vast distance now between them. She is right, of course.

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