Chinese Reality #27: Though I Am Gone

To commemorate the film series Chinese Realities / Documentary Visions at The Museum of Modern Art (May 8-June 1), each day this month this blog will publish a brief primer on one of the 28 films selected in the series.

Today’s film:

Though I Am Gone (dir. Hu Jie)

Though I Am Gone (dir. Hu Jie)

Wo sui si qu (Though I Am Gone)

2007. China. Directed by Hu Jie.

MoMA program description:

The documentaries of Hu Jie, China’s most fearless historical filmmaker, probe lost stories of the nation’s revolutionary past. His profile of 85-year-old Wang Qingyao reveals how Wang extemporaneously performed the role of documentarian when his wife, the school teacher Bian Zhongyun, was beaten to death by her students as an accused reactionary during the Cultural Revolution. Wang’s photos of the incident emerge as a historical precursor to the contemporary documentary movement in its efforts to record social injustices and marginalized figures.

Excerpts from select reviews and writings:

“Because the Chinese official authority does not want us to remember the history, we non-official people should remember on our own.”

- Hu Jie, quoted in Chris Berry and Lisa Rofel, “Alternative Archive.” In The New Chinese Documentary Film Movement: For the Public Record. Edited by Berry, Lv, Rofel. Hong Kong University Press, 2010.

In terms of documentary types, Hu’s Though I Am Gone can be said to deploy a range of strategies that go well beyond those associated with an expository mode. As a result of the film-maker’s use of different types of materials and a variety of audiovisual methods, Though I Am Gone becomes a formally and aesthetically compelling collage consisting of facts, memories and associations.

- Cheung Tit Leung, Directory of World Cinema

The “star” of Hu Jie’s film is Bian Zhongyun’s husband, Wang Jingyao. Now over 80, the elderly man speaks about his wife’s death with frankness and emotion. For more than 40 years, Wang has carefully kept Bian’s blood-stained clothes, her watch that stopped at the exact moment of the beating, and photos taken right before her cremation revealing her bruised body. This is the first time, through Hu’s camera, Wang is able to show Bian’s story, including her brutal death, to the world.  The effect is powerful, if only for demonstrating the care he has taken of these items under extremely difficult circumstances.  Wang Jingyao has done a great service to the memory of those who died during the Cultural Revolution, and deserves the deep respect of all those who do not want to forget the Cultural Revolution, but instead want to learn from it.

- Weili Ye, Asian Educational Media Service

He kept the photographs for four decades, waiting all the while to transfer them into the Cultural Revolution Museum, if such a museum is ever to be built.

- Jie Li, Public Culture

Then there are such as the photo Wang took of the view from their apartment window of the open space where — in the days before the onset of the Cultural Revolution – he would wait to meet her when she returned from work, and the revelation that he secretly set up a memorial for his late wife inside a bookcase in their home — things that have more to do with his love for her than his determination to see that justice will eventually be served.   Consequently, even while Though I Am Gone is undoubtedly filled with much sorrow, this thoroughly admirable effort also does leave its viewers with a sense that (some) humanity, love and bravery can and has managed to prevail even in incredibly trying times and circumstances.

- Webs of Significance

In addition to recording Wang, Hu’s film also foregrounds the very idea of archiving and testimony. Even before the title of the film appears, the first shot is a close-up of Wang Jingyao’s Seagull-brand camera, which we later find out he used to take photographs of his wife’s body the day after she died. The year of the film’s production, 2006, is the fortieth anniversary of the outbreak of the Cultural Revolution and of his wife’s death. Wang says he has been carrying a cross since then and that he feels it is his responsibility to reveal what happened. The film draws attention to the connect between the archiving of all documents from photographs to bloodstained clothes and the convincing revelation of truth… Hu’s editing of the film and his dual focus on Wang Jingyao’s documentation process almost as much as what he has documented suggest a strong sense of affinity with Wang.

- Chris Berry and Lisa Rofel, “Alternative Archive.”  In The New Chinese Documentary Film Movement: For the Public Record. Edited by Berry, Lv, Rofel. Hong Kong University Press, 2010.

- Links to online resources about Ban Zhongyun’s death on Wellesley College website

It took a year of negotiations and a viewing of the Lin Zhaofilm to persuade Bian’s aging husband to tell his story and show his photographs for the first time. These images, and Hu’s film that has taken them to a wider audience, is testimony not only to the brutality of the Maoist era, but also the importance of documenting history – especially in an environment in which the past is constantly erased and rewritten to suit the political needs of the present.

- Dan Edwards, “Street Level Visions: China’s Digital Documentary Movement,” Senses of Cinema

Just before the Yunnan Multi Culture Visual Festival, the Organising Committee suddenly issued a notice on 26 March saying the film festival was ordered to suspend and the committee was still communicating with the relevant departments. Sources say the suspension is the result of the nomination of documentary “Though I am Gone.”

- Sophia Cao, China Digital Times

The mainland-based Douban website touts itself as a movie database but a search for Hu Jie’s 2007 documentary Though I Am Gone – about the brutal killing of a school principal during the Cultural Revolution – proves fruitless. The mainland may have sanctioned other films which broach the so-called ’10 years of catastrophe’ but Hu’s film is still banned because of its subject.

- Clarence Tsui, South China Morning Post

One of the reasons the Communist Party reacted with such sensitivity to his most recent work is that many of the former members of the Red Guard who attended Bian’s middle school were members of the families of high-ranking officials who are still revered today. “Some were daughters, nieces or granddaughters of members of the Politburo,” says Wang, the widower featured in the film. “It was essentially a royal school.” Yaowu, for example, was the daughter of a senior Communist Party official. The students also included Deng Rong, daughter of the later Communist Party patriarch and economic reformer Deng Xiaoping, as well as Liu Tingting, a daughter of former President Liu Shaoqi.

- Andreas Lorenz, Spiegel

I think from a foreigner’s point of view, it would be very sad if you made a film that could not be seen by your audience. But for me it’s normal, because after all they don’t allow you to make these films. The public media never makes or broadcasts these kinds of films. That is the reality I face. So the most important thing for me is to make the film, and to make a good film. Then the word will spread. This is the standard I set for myself. I don’t have a way to distribute the films, so the only channel I have is to make a really good film. If it’s good enough, the word will spread. If the film does not find an audience I do not complain that it is banned – I criticise myself for not doing a good enough job.

- Hu Jie, interviewed by Dan Edwards, Art Space China, August 1 2012