A Revolution for Memory: Reproductions of a Communist Utopia through Tsui Hark’s The Taking of Tiger Mountain and Posters from the Cultural Revolution

By Nathan To

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“The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution now unfolding is a great revolution that touches people to their very soul and constitutes a new stage in the development of the socialist revolution in our country…”[1]

“Whatever the measures chosen for erasing facts and people from memory, the erasures even when perfectly programmed, only set in motion a memory that does not forget and that is seeking to be inscribed”.[2]

 Within contemporary Chinese cinema, the tension of official remembrance and silencing persists through particular histories such as the Chinese Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). What is troubling about the struggle for memory in this decade is how the tragedy and traumatic event of the Cultural Revolution continues to be censored, re-written, and ultimately forgotten. The Revolution continues to be silenced and replaced with idyllic narratives within cinema that seek to inspire an audience towards the greatness of Communist ideals. In this article, I interrogate the official remembrances of the Cultural Revolution and how the memory of a Communist utopia is produced through state strategies of soft power in contemporary popular Chinese cinema. Soft power leverages popular culture to attract and co-opt intended audiences to accept particular views without resorting to coercive methods.[3] My paper focuses on the pop culture importance of blockbuster film. Specifically, my discussion focuses on Tsui Hark’s The Taking of Tiger Mountain (2014), a blockbuster film adaptation of a popular “8 Model Opera” that has resulted in tremendous box office profits in domestic Mainland Chinese markets. I discuss the film’s idyllic perceptions of the People’s Liberation Army, the Communist army that served as the precursor to the infamous Red Guards during the Maoist era. Then I juxtapose many of these official remembrances alongside a legacy of revolutionary posters from the Cultural Revolution that convey persistent narratives of Communist utopian ideals.

Remembrances and Forgetting

During the Chinese Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee (CCPCC) sought to establish a legacy of memory that could live on for generations by initiating “a revolution to touch people’s souls”[4]. In order to produce such memories, the streets of society saw an abundance of revolutionary posters distributed widely. These posters served to touch and inspire the people towards communist revolutionary ideals.[5] Powerful, still visual imagery from these posters praised Mao Zedong and directed children and adults alike to take up arms and join the revolutionary cause. These posters also portrayed the Revolutionary army with pleasant brushstrokes that described how soldiers served the people, helped the poor and weak, and could even be equated to one’s family.[6]

The Communist utopia ideologies expressed through these posters were brought to life within the artistic execution of the 8 Model Operas (yangbanxi). These eight operas were the only plays, ballets, and performances allowed by Chairman Mao and his state authority during the Cultural Revolution era. Among the most popular operas that are recognizable today are the Red Detachment of Women and Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy, which has inspired Tsui Hark’s film, The Taking of Tiger Mountain (2014).

These idyllic remembrances, however, betray a forgotten, traumatic, and haunting legacy. Censored by the state, the Cultural Revolution was a period in Chinese history where Mao Zedong and his brand of Communist China imposed anti-tradition policies and extremist anti-bourgeois actions involving mass murders that left millions dead. The mandate to destroy the state’s enemies at all costs took its bloody toll throughout Chinese society. Diane Lary offers a striking comparison of the Cultural Revolution: ‘The upending of all traditional values had something in common with the Holocaust, but with a major difference: The Nazis turned on non-Aryan races; the Chinese turned on each other’.[7]  The infamous slogan, “My parents may love me, but not as much as Chairman Mao” was a manipulative but powerful motivator for Mao’s followers[8]. Dissenters accused of being disloyal to Revolutionary ideals were punished with “struggle sessions”, an act of intense public shaming and humiliation. The dissenters were tied up, labeled with accusatory signage, and then physically beaten in front of large crowds and witnesses.[9] These punishments were intended to overturn the bourgeois and wealthy (e.g. landowners), while attacking intellectuals and those sympathetic to old ideas (e.g. Confucianism).

Unfortunately, many films that remember the trauma of painful, haunting histories such as the Cultural Revolution have increasingly faded. Notably, the Fifth Generation directors had begun to address these subjects as part of a ‘search-for-roots’ movement. Escaping or exiled to the West in the 1980s and 1990s, these directors adapted their own experiences under Maoist rule into film that was critical and indicting of Communist political atrocities.[10] For instance, director Tian Zhuangzhuang was banned for 10 years due to his film, Blue Kite (1993). This film implicated the Chinese Communist regime. Blue Kite commented on how the CCP’s rise to power in 1949 began with an idyllic promise and hope of a better life for all people. But Tian’s film depicted how abuses of state power and sanctioned injustices affected individuals, families, and communities, eventually leading to the horrific Cultural Revolution. While Blue Kite was critically acclaimed in Western countries, China’s punishment on Tian would have a clear impact on his filmmaking. Since Blue Kite, Tian’s subsequent films to this date have not ventured into any more political critiques of the CCP.[11] With bold, provocative cinema, Fifth Generation Chinese directors such as Tian Zhuangzhuang searched for “roots” that were far different from the Communist value of rediscovering one’s “roots” within the feigned ideals of the Communist Motherland. However, since the new millennium, these Fifth Generation directors have largely chosen to exercise greater caution after receiving criticisms and bans from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) of their films and/or themselves during the 1980s and 90s. The closest that any of these directors have come to commenting on the censored Cultural Revolution in present day can be found, for instance, in Fifth Generation director Zhang Yimou’s Coming Home (2014). However, as I have argued elsewhere, while this film is set at the onset of the Cultural Revolution, it “skips” over the Revolution’s decade and refrains from offering condemning scenes of this period or the soldiers. In fact, the Red Guards are depicted as helpful, noble, and graceful. This is subtly reinforced with the inclusion of the model opera Red Detachment of Women within the film.[12]

Furthermore, this nostalgic remembrance of the Communist ideal is evident in Zhang Yimou’s tenth film, The Road Home (1999). This was his second film since he had become much more politically submissive to the decisions of Chinese film studios, and in turn, the regulations of the Chinese authorities.[13] The Road Home is significantly a film that produces a sentimental memory of China and its people through the narrative of a man’s reminiscence of his parent’s courtship in his home village.[14] The film evokes lush pastoral settings, majestic scenery and landscapes, and vibrant colours of a village and countryside in 1960s China (likely also during the Cultural Revolution). Rey Chow suggests that the production of this film can be “traced to a residual socialist sentimentalism with its faith in the import of human action”.[15] That is, The Road Home operates under the guise of romantic nostalgia and its melodrama evokes an (over)engagement with the personal (that is, within the private family sphere), while neglecting the larger historical contexts of national history. Its very problematics in terms of memory are due to how it carries ideological sensibilities of the Communist ideal by analogizing the public with the private. The Road Home’s melodrama carries a particular kind of “nostalgic sentimentalism” for a socialist humanism within the public sphere that articulates a nationalist quality. It attempts to convey a remembrance of a Communist era utopia by salvaging hope and humanity with themes of redemption within the innocence of a countryside.[16] Thus, what is produced is a memory that neglects the realities of China’s history, as if suggesting that the atrocity of the Cultural Revolution could be gladly forgotten through the idyllic notion of reconnection with one’s ancestral roots and reunion with one’s family.[17] These are similar ideals of one’s roots and reunion that also persist strongly in the narrative of Tsui Hark’s The Taking of Tiger Mountain (2014).

Part of the intent within soft power strategies is to bring greater visibility to remembrances that the state desires versus those that are preferred forgotten.[18] For instance, the growth of “Confucius Institutes” in strategic Western cities (e.g. London and Vancouver) has led to valuable international partnerships of cultural, artistic and language exchange with Western social and educational institutions. However, the political ideology and practical concerns of these initiatives have been critiqued in both popular press and scholarly literature.[19]

Within cinema, Chinese blockbuster films have also leveraged soft power strategies to produce particular memories of China in both domestic and international markets. For example, the state-produced film, The Founding of the Republic (2009), remembers the 60th anniversary of the CCP by unapologetically promoting its nationalist stance within a politics of commemorating Mao Zedong’s rise to power. The film attempts to attract audiences in both Mainland Chinese and Hong Kong markets by leveraging popular celebrity culture through the casting of numerous Mainland and Hong Kong film stars and directors. Commemorations of particular national wounds are also pervasive within the historical wartime blockbuster, Flowers of War (2012). This film remembers the Nanjing Massacre of 1937, depicting a traumatic history that saw Imperial Japanese soldiers murder, torture and rape hundreds of thousands of Chinese citizens. In contrast to Founding the Republic, Flowers of War demonstrates a soft power strategy to reach international markets by casting an “A-list” American Hollywood actor, Christian Bale (The Dark Knight Trilogy), as the protagonist. [20] This film’s vision of China remembers the pain, humiliation, and suffering at the hands of a foreign, oppressive enemy. Black-and-white characterizations reveal Chinese characters depicted as heroic, brave, and sacrificial, while the Japanese are shown as villainous, sinister and ruthless. Such dualisms create a collective, national identification around an officially produced memory that cheers the good and deeply begrudges the evil with little space for ambiguous or sympathetic characters.[21] This phenomenon of suffering and victory can be understood as the “logic of the wound”, where cinema speaks “bitterness” but also seeks to remedy the trauma of the situation through some resolution.[22]

A War for Memory on Tiger Mountain

However, for Tsui Hark’s The Taking of Tiger Mountain (hereafter Tiger), particular wounds need not be remedied, because references to the traumatic memory of the Cultural Revolution are nowhere to be seen. This invisibility may not be surprising, given that the film itself is set a couple of decades earlier in 1946, right after Imperial Japan’s surrender in World War II and during the Communist’s civil war against the KMT (Kuomingtang).[23] The semi-historical story’s importance to the Revolution was likely due to the heroism of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in the original historical circumstances. Thus, depicting a narrative that celebrates the PLA’s great victory allows for audiences to trace the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) legacy to the PLA’s glorious feats of heroism. In order to repeatedly produce and consolidate this particular vision of the CCP, it is thus unsurprising why the story of Tiger once served as one of the most popular 8 Model Operas during the Cultural Revolution.

To attract a new domestic and international audience, Tsui Hark’s adaptation of the opera attempts to reclaim the impact and influence of the original narrative. Tsui re-imagines and pays homage to the story’s history as both model play and filmed stage opera during the Cultural Revolution era. However, Tsui’s cinematic tribute perpetuates the same tropes of power and memory production that rendered the Cultural Revolution invisible. For example, dualistic tropes persist with black-and-white characterizations of “good”, Communist heroes (PLA), “bad” KMT villains and their allies, the “evil” bandits. The attractive spectacle and emotional poignancy of the film’s melodrama and nostalgia produces a dominant visibility of preferred history while forgetting the traumatic remembrance of state-sanctioned atrocity. This presents an incredible amount that is quite “visible” through the melodrama and spectacle of Tiger and its method of memory production.

Leveraging its legacy and popularity as an 8 Model Opera, its big budget, special effects, intense action, 3-D conversion effects (within cinemas), and meticulously planned screens, The Taking of Tiger Mountain was released in China on December 23, 2014.[24] The sensory excess and spectacle of this film solicits and attracts the spectator’s attention through the visual novelty of Hollywood-style blockbuster aesthetics.[25] Attempts to attract a new generation of Chinese spectators to Revolutionary opera were extremely successful. This modern update became the tenth highest-grossing film of all time in China within two months.[26]

Briefly, the story of the 2014 version of Tiger was based on Qu Bo’s novel, Taking Tiger Mountain By Strategy or also known as Tracks in the Snowy Forest (Lin hai xue yuan). The basic premise of all versions revolves around a contingent of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA)—a precursor to the Chinese Communist Party—and their conflict with various infamous gangs of bandits who have overtaken a strategic location in Northeastern China. The story centres around the heroic main protagonist, Yang  Zirong, who goes undercover to infiltrate the largest bandit gang in order to secure the PLA’s own survival and future military advantage in their civil war with the KMT (and the bandits).

The unique element of Tsui Hark’s film is a device that sandwiches the central drama of Tiger between present-day New York and China. It focuses on an ethnic Chinese character named Jimmy who lives in New York and who decides to take temporary leave to return “home” for Chinese New Year.  The past events in Tiger are immediately staged reflexively in the context of memory and spectatorship as the film first presents the first act of the central drama through the gaze of Jimmy. For example, in the taxi on his way to the airport, we see Jimmy streaming a film on his mobile phone using the Chinese video streaming website Youku. He appears to be watching an old version of the stage opera Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy (see Figure 1).

The inclusion of Jimmy permits the audience to know that they are, in fact, watching something “staged”, not unlike the experience of live theatre or opera. This operatic consciousness is further evident in the director’s choice of makeup for some of the actors, the at-times comical and melodramatic dialogue and acting, and also in the dualistic noble hero/evil villain dichotomy. Notably, the exaggerated makeup on selected characters included an exaggerated use of “rouge” for the cheeks (especially for the children and the supporting actress), extensive dark eye makeup for the male protagonist in some scenes (perhaps to point to his stature as the hero of this story), alongside postures and gestures that also portray this operatic influence. Thus, Tsui clearly pays tribute to the very operatic traditions of the original genre through the film’s depictions of “histrionic” or faux acting.[27] The 2014 version thus subtly whispers to the spectator a tribute to stylized spectacles of past performances.

 

Figure 1- jimmy phone

Fig. 1. Staging the central narrative: Jimmy turning on his phone to stream an old version of Tiger

Figure 2 -Yang inspired

Fig. 2. Yang Zirong and his heroic gaze

 

The director’s exuberance for the story is expressed visibly through the second ending, which depicts a high octane, excessively dramatic, special effects-laden version in which Jimmy re-imagines his “preferred” vision of the history after the film first shows the audience a regular ending. Amidst the sheer spectacle of the action-packed side of this “popcorn flick”, however, the film still wants the audience to take the subject matter seriously and with respect.

Absolutely no space is allowed to question, doubt, or critique the success, nobility, and intelligence of the PLA. They are flawlessly portrayed as noble, heroic, and brave. Yet, in spite of the operatic elements of the film, it also demonstrates a historicism and self-seriousness that clearly references the ideology of Cultural Revolution imagery and the desire to again inspire and “touch” its viewers towards Communist ideals. For instance, the camera angles, poses, and gestures of the PLA protagonist, Yang Zirong, in particular, enhance the ideological presentation of the film. Notably, we can see the camera actually frame Yang with the “socialist realist gaze”, a common camera device used in Mao era revolutionary film (see Figure 2).[28] This gaze offers an intense look directed off-screen, suggesting a sublimely frozen, timeless moment in the narrative that depicts Yang’s ideological resplendency.[29] In stark contrast to the heroism of the PLA, the villains are instead depicted with an almost cartoon-like exaggeration of sinister insidiousness. Thus, this film is intent on re-appropriating its propagandistic legacy to its new contemporary audience.

Producing the Communist Utopia

Significantly, Tiger’s idyllic presentation can be unrelenting in its attempts to preserve a particular nostalgia of the Maoist era while producing an unflinchingly positive perception of the PLA (and in turn, the Chinese Communist Party and its Red Guards). Portrayals of this Communist ideal in Tiger can, interestingly, be traced to the dominant visual media of the Cultural Revolution era: its Revolutionary posters. The significance of these posters are not to be underestimated, as many of them depict the very gestures, scenarios, imagery and ideologies that helped define memory production during the Maoist era. Interestingly, similar depictions can also be seen within different scenes of Tiger itself. Such imagery (whether moving image or still) clearly serves to evoke what Huang describes as the “isms” or key ideologies that the state wants to preserve of its “communist utopia”[30]. Producing this utopian ideal was significant as the prevalence and potency of memory production during this era witnessed Mao and how he “created the terms of political discourse—created correct thought—by transforming his reading of the past into the only possible reading”.[31] From the perspective of Chairman Mao, how the Chinese people remembered history determined the course of success, power, and influence for the CCP.

Juxtaposing Revolutionary Posters and Images from Tiger 

The production of this communist utopia/ideal is articulated through several narratives in Tiger that find their thematic and visual parallels through revolutionary posters from the Cultural Revolution. These parallels, I argue, suggest how Tiger demonstrates state strategies of soft power influence through shared visual depictions and narratives of Communist ideals.

For example, one notable side-story in Tiger involvesa rebellious young child named Knotti, whose father was killed by bandits. His mother Qinglian also went missing (it is later discovered that she was abducted by the bandit leader). Knotti’s development from a traumatized, fiercely resistant and antisocial child into a responsible, young, and inspired child soldier of the PLA willing to sacrifice himself to destroy the enemy satisfies much of the Revolutionary ideology promoted during the Cultural Revolution. Notably, the Communist regime considered the development of young children into soldiers as absolutely essential. This was evident through the existence of the Young Little Pioneers (which later became the Little Red Guards). Shockingly, this encouragement for children to take up arms and participate in the Revolution was visibly present through prevalent revolutionary posters (see Figure 3).[32] If we juxtapose some of these posters from the Cultural Revolution with screen captures from Tiger, we can see a striking attention to the similarity of socialist poses, gestures and expressions. In Figure 4, for instance, a poster appeals to children to be “brave against the enemy” and depicts a child grabbing the enemy by his hair and violently drowning him. This parallels with a scene where Knotti, out of anger at seeing his PLA adult comrade shot (this is a “righteous anger” in the eyes of the Communist narrative), takes up his rifle to attack the enemy.

 

Figure 3. “Army and People are One Family”. A child holds a toy gun while receiving a haircut from a Communist soldier[33]

Fig. 3. “Army and People are One Family”. A child holds a toy gun while receiving a haircut from a Communist soldier[33]

Figure4a+b

Fig. 4: “Be Brave Against Your Enemy”; Knotti taking up arms to fight the enemy in Tiger [34]

Figure 5a.  “A PLA man and indignant children on hillside, looking through the documents of some unseen enemy…”[35]

Fig. 5a. “A PLA man and indignant children on hillside, looking through the documents of some unseen enemy…”[35]

Figure 5b. Original composition

Fig. 5b. Original composition

 

Similarly, in Figure 5a, we can see another comparison by viewing the Revolutionary poster against a cropped screen capture of Tiger. In the latter still, male and female children (Knotti and Little Juan in Tiger) are both visible in a scene where they decide to join the PLA’s fight. Little Juan is armed with wooden staffs that parallel the weaponry seen in the poster by various children. Little Dove (the female army doctor/soldier in Tiger) and Knotti are holding on to pairs of skis, which demonstrates a willingness to fight patriotically. These skis were being used by the soldiers for both navigating and fighting on the snowy mountain. Both the poster and the screen capture also show a supervising adult soldier (see male soldier in poster) and Little Dove. The original composition of this camera shot shows Little Dove, Knotti and Little Juan framed in the centre of the shot. Two PLA soldiers also serve to frame the shot like a picture frame. Within Tiger, this framing conveys a heightened sense of the characters’ and the film spectator’s admiration (see Figure 5b).  While the children are allowed to participate in the journey up Tiger mountain to the site of the final battle (under supervision of Little Dove), they are however encouraged to stay safe and outside the more dangerous areas. The intent of this image, it seems, is therefore to convey the sense of Knotti, Little Juan, and Little Dove’s strong patriotism to the cause. This expression of patriotism is also visible in the gestures and themes of another poster. Much like the screen capture of Tiger in Figure 5a, Figure 6 also depicts a similar gender and role combination: an adult female soldier, a young boy, and a young girl. Again, the intent of such gender and role arrangements appears to centre around themes of patriotism, loyalty and participation.

 

Figure 6.  “I love the blue sky of the motherland”[36]

Fig. 6. “I love the blue sky of the motherland”[36]

In the case of children taking up arms, there are no suggestions of involuntary or victimized “child soldiers” in either posters or the film. Instead, we, as spectators, see a carefully crafted narrative of children who willingly take up arms out of their innocence and inspiration to make a difference and help out their comrades and friends. Such visions of memory evoke a crude emotional response of “rooting for” these children to do their best.[37] It is this positive, inspirational message that expresses a communist ideal in both posters and film. That is, the film’s remembrance of such Revolutionary imagery suggests Communist ideals emphasizing the importance of unity and standing together, regardless of one’s age or background. The spectator is therefore encouraged to serve a greater cause that serves the country no matter the sacrifice.

Also visible is a portrayal that expresses the PLA soldiers’ generosity for the villagers. In the Communist narrative, this depicts their heart for the people, especially the elderly, poor and weak. Notably, villagers are in this scene exemplified through an old woman and her son. In this scene, Yang and his crew are investigating a village for survivors. Mistaken for bandits, Yang and his comrades are attacked by the peasant son hiding in their own home, but Yang declares that they have in fact come in peace. Soon they discover the peasant son is in fact an old friend, Yongqi, of one of the comrades present. Yongqi’s elder mother has fallen sick and is fatigued from having run out of food. Noticing the situation, Yang is seen taking food from his own rations. Little Dove, the army doctor, quickly attends to the elder mother and cooks porridge for her from Yang’s rations. In turn, Yongqi joins the PLA cause, and the village becomes a key strategic defensive outpost for the PLA.[38]

Paralleling the film, images from old Revolutionary posters also establish the PLA group as one that is noble, generous and advocates for and with the common people (see figure 7). Here, the PLA soldiers willingly help the sick, poor and weak and demonstrate their responsibility and passion of helping villagers.

 

Figure 7.  Soldiers and doctor help the elder in room full of peasants.[39]

Fig. 7. Soldiers and doctor help the elder in room full of peasants.[39]

Figure 8. PLA soldiers helping an ill elder villager onto her bed (kang)

Fig. 8. PLA soldiers helping an ill elder villager onto her bed (kang)

Figure 9. Army doctor feeding the elderly villager food to help her recover.

Fig. 9. Army doctor feeding the elderly villager food to help her recover

 

Figure 8 shows a scene similar to the one portrayed in Tiger (cf. also Figure 7). The Communist ideal depicted in these posters is that of soldiers attending to the poor and vulnerable as their defenders and caretakers. A similar portrayal can be seen in Tiger where Little Dove also attends to the elder woman laying on the kang by trying to feed her food and/or medicine with a spoon (see Figures 8 and 9). All these images across posters and film point to an important remembrance of the CCP as a party that champions for all those who cannot help themselves. Tiger, then, becomes a key strategic medium of soft power for the CCP to leverage the popular appeal of blockbuster films and influence a new generation of spectators to Communist ideals and causes.

What is the significance of these juxtapositions between revolutionary posters and screenshots from The Taking of Tiger Mountain? From my comparisons so far, it is evident how Tiger re-appropriates old poster propaganda into moving images that convey the ideology and memory of a Communist utopia for a new generation increasingly distant from the Cultural Revolution era. As Evans and Donald argue, Chinese posters during the Maoist era evoke power relations that display for us, the modern viewers, the official discourses structuring, establishing and producing memories of a particular, preferred version of that specific era.[40] While it is clear that the Chinese Communist Party’s contemporary soft power strategies differ greatly from the past, it is interesting to spot an attachment and re-appropriation to old propagandistic imagery and their utopian ideals. Still, from a filmmaking perspective, a large degree of credit must be given to Tsui Hark and his crew for the research and  meticulous work done to replicate these gestures and poses of a Revolutionary past into a nostalgic remembrance for a very different present era and film audience. Nonetheless, such efforts do not negate the persistence of produced memory as evidenced by the idyllic scenes in Tiger. After all, the revolutionary posters served a clear propagandistic purpose during the Cultural Revolution era.

Roots and Memory: PLA as Family

The new generation that grows increasingly distant to 20th century war histories is exemplified by Jimmy and in how the director stages past and present together. The intention here is to assert the ideals of inter-generational connection and filial piety. While these are noble notions, the film implants Communist ideals once again. Cinematic melodrama and spectacle are leveraged once more in soft power strategies to articulate the connectedness and familial bond that can exist between government and citizens. For new generations of domestic or international diasporic Chinese, the film promotes a Communist leadership—through the example of the PLA—that offers the spectator a solicitation of trust. Significantly, this solicitation is directed to ethnic Chinese diasporas, especially those raised in countries apart from Mainland China. Such attempts court transnational spectators to a utopian vision of China as “home” or motherland where one’s cultural and ancestral roots can be recovered, and where histories can be (selectively) remembered.

These themes are evident towards the end of Tiger, in present day. Jimmy returns to his grandmother’s home for Chinese New Year’s Eve dinner, the most important meal of the year in the Chinese calendar, to be shared with close family and/or friends. At the dinner table, Jimmy notices how his table is filled with numerous food dishes, enough to feed an army. Jimmy asks, “Why are there so many guests?”. Grandma responds, “What guests? They are all family”. Indeed, this food is meant for the PLA squad that the spectator has come to know over the course of the film. In the subsequent scene, Jimmy imagines the ghosts of the whole PLA squad as family members, smiling as they join Jimmy at the table (see Figure 10). It is here where we also discover that Jimmy’s grandfather is in fact Knotti, the little boy in the PLA army. Jimmy immediately feels touched and inspired by his Revolutionary vision of his grandfather and his army-family. In tears, Jimmy creates for himself a poignant, joyful remembrance of what family truly means. Spectators, too, are invited to participate in this melodramatic sentiment. Diasporic ethnic Chinese in the West are also invited to re-discover cultural roots with a Chinese motherland that will protect and welcome us. Indeed, spectators are invited to adopt a prosthetic memory of the joys of Revolution, and amnesia of its brutal consequences.

 

Figure 10. Chinese New Year’s Eve family dinner with Jimmy, his grandfather Knotti, and the PLA squadron.

Fig. 10. Chinese New Year’s Eve family dinner with Jimmy, his grandfather Knotti, and the PLA squadron

 

Again, the involvement of such soft power efforts in this memory production demonstrates the state’s compulsion to (re)create a singular Chinese people, unified and united, regardless of place, space or time for the consumption by both domestic and international audiences.[41] The implications of this final “family” scene that stretches across time and across geographies raises questions about the intent of such memory production for transnational markets. The importance of Jimmy in this film is both descriptive of the diasporic Chinese situation as well as prescriptive in urging ethnic Chinese in the West to rediscover their roots and heritage through a vision of re-connecting with the Motherland. This discourse of return and recovery of one’s roots in the context of a national, collective identification renders problematic any progressive notions of diasporic return.[42] The issue at stake here, then, is to what extent these soft power strategies are cultivating dominant relationships of power with overseas diasporas through such (re)productions of memory.  As Laura Marks suggests:

The relationships between cultures are also mediated by power so that the dominant regime….sets the terms of what counts as knowledge….They may evade expression because of censorship; because memory is inaccessible; or because to give expression to memories is to invite madness.  They may become subsumed to the dominant regime and forced to speak its language…. [43]

Thus, disrupting these relations of power is not easy.  Hegemonic interference makes it extremely difficult, if nearly impossible, for a new generation to discern the entanglements and tensions between history and memory. Interrogating the possibility of re-written histories therefore requires one to be critically reflexive of how these histories are being envisioned in film. In this way, spectators can see film more actively by asking what sorts of remembrances are being repeated and what images and histories might be actively silenced or ignored. Through such questions and self-reflexivity, one’s individual and collective cultural memory can thus subvert problems of power by examining where there may be gaps in histories and memories.

In this regard, Jimmy’s presence and role in the introduction, middle act, and coda of The Taking of Tiger Mountain (2014), might, for the more optimistic critic, spark a reflexive awareness of the spectator viewing the film. Perhaps this also reflects Tsui Hark’s subtle tension in articulating the opportunity for spectators to critically engage with the problematic spectacle and political intent of official state memory productions within this film. Even if this optimism is viable, the director’s attempts are nonetheless drowned in the sea of self-congratulatory, hegemonic imagery that is so intent on remembering state legacy and pushing on to the spectator a particular, prosthetic memory of Chinese history.[44]

Conclusion

Regardless of the director’s intention in this film, identifying the gaps in mediated visions of memory and the processes of silencing often involves critically and reflexively noting what visual, mediated memories have become produced and rendered visible for the transnational audience/spectator. Within Tsui Hark’s The Taking of Tiger Mountain (2014), this replication of Revolutionary themes is expressed through scenes depicting noble virtues of sacrifice, filial piety, courage, power, and the sentimental articulation of recovering one’s ancestral roots and heritage. These replications and re-appropriations reflect the Communist discourse that is rendered visible through Tiger’s revolutionary imagery. This visible imagery attempts to repeat and retell particular, chosen narratives through the presentation of the PLA. Therefore, these Communist ideologies reflect a utopian ideal that dominated Party politics during the Maoist era, and can be traced back to memory strategies during the Cultural Revolution, including the dominant visual mode of propagandistic posters.

Nonetheless, the state appears to prefer soft power strategies that attain the consent and participation of the population, even as they re-appropriate old propagandistic methods. While these issues of soft power and memory production must be reflexively engaged, to offer immediate scrutiny is perhaps too simplistic. In this article, my position has been to offer a critical yet thoughtful analysis on the hegemonic state production of official memory and (soft) power. However, it may also be important to consider, as Chua Beng-Huat argues, how soft power can also be understood as an important tool towards re-building a nation or society’s international perception, particularly if this society was once marginalized and oppressed by wealthier, more developed countries.[45] Weaving through the tension of problematic and more optimistic positions of understanding power and memory in relation to the themes I have discussed here would certainly be worthy of future study.

Regardless of how or why power and memory is produced, what is fundamental for spectators is to reflexively examine these issues in light of reflexively considering what issues, histories, and remembrances are at stake and at risk of being lost due to the struggles and tensions of such power. Ultimately, wrestling with this tension through an active engagement may therefore offer a way of reading film that may seek to bring voice to those who are silenced and bring a critical awareness to what histories and memories are rendered visible and invisible.

 


 

[1] Sources of Chinese Tradition: From 1600 Through the Twentieth Century, compiled by Wm. Theodore de Bary and Richard Lufrano, 2nd ed., vol. 2. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000, 474-475.

[2] Françoise Davoine and Jean-Max Gaudillière, History Beyond Trauma (New York: Other Press, 2004), xxvii.

[3] Beng-Huat Chua. Structure, Audience and Soft Power in East Asian Pop Culture (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2012),  6. Originally, the concept of soft power developed from Joseph Nye’s critical analysis of United States strategies and its global influence. However, because of Nye’s America-focused discussion, the concept of soft power and its relevance in different cultural contexts continues to be debated in scholarly literature. Chua’s discussion of soft power adopts Joseph Nye’s arguments while effectively adapting it to East Asian cultural contexts. For the purposes of this paper, I also adopt Chua’s position in my discussion of China’s use of it within popular cinema. However, I want to acknowledge that ongoing scholarly debates critique Nye’s conceptualization of soft power and its applicability to cultural contexts apart from the US. While important, these nuanced debates are beyond the scope of this paper. For excellent discussions and debates on this concept, please see Joseph Nye’s seminal book, Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics (New York: Public Affairs, 2004). See also Jacques E. C. Hymans article, “India’s soft power and vulnerability”, India Review, 4:2 (2009),  234 – 265. Hymans’ paper critiques the simplicity and applicability of Nye’s soft power in reference to the unique cultural conditions in South Asian contexts. For an excellent examination of the Chinese propaganda system that also departs from Nye and instead focuses on subjective Chinese conceptions, contexts, and perceptions of soft power, see Kingsley Edney’s monograph, The Globalization of Chinese Propaganda: International Power and Domestic Political Cohesion, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).

[4] Harriet Evans and Stephanie Donald. “Introducing Posters of China’s Cultural Revolution”. In Picturing Power in the People’s Republic of China: Posters of the Cultural Revolution, edited byHarriet Evans and Stephanie Donald. (Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 1999).

[5] Evans and Donald, 1999,  2.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Diane Lary. The Chinese People at War: Human Suffering and Social  Transformation. 1937-1945. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010),  12.

[8] Clare Bagshaw. A China Moment.. (Xlibris Corporation, 2012),  54.

[9] Mo Yan. Red Sorghum. (H. Goldblatt, trans.) (Toronto: Penguin Books, 1994).

[10] Ban Wang. Illuminations from the Past: Trauma, Memory, History in Modern

China. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004),  6.

[11] Other Fifth Generation Chinese films that critiqued the CCP and their Cultural Revolution include Chen Kaige’s Farewell My Concubine (1993)and Zhang Yimou’s To Live (1994). Both films were also critically acclaimed in European and North American festival circuits but were banned in China.

[12] Nathan M.L. To, “Transgenerational Hauntings, Media, Memory and Power: Diasporic Visions of Historical Traumas in Modern China through Moving Images”, 2014. Manuscript submitted for publication; see also Nathan M.L. To, “Diasporic Montage and Critical Autoethnography: Mediated Visions of Intergenerational Memory and the Affective Transmission of Trauma”. In: B.T. Knudsen and C. Stage (eds.) Affective Methodologies, (forthcoming). Palgrave. The closest mainstream Chinese film to attempt a critique and commentary of the Cultural Revolution is Lu Chuan’s The Last Supper, based on Liu Bang (Gaozu), whose reign began the Han Dynasty. This film is also discussed in my 2014 paper cited here (see also Andrew and Rapp, 2002, 22).

[13] Peter Rist. “Zhang Yimou’s The Road Home”. Off Screen, 6:8 (August 2002). Online Journal. [Accessed 03/14/2015].

[14] The Road Home begins with a man’s return to his home village upon hearing of the death of his father. A flashback ensues, which reveals the film’s central narrative, which is to tell the courtship story of the man’s father and mother.

[15] Rey Chow, “Sentimental Returns: On the Uses of the Everyday in the Recent Films of Zhang Yimou and Wong Kar-wai”. New Literary History, 33:4 (Autumn 2002),  648.

[16] ibid.,  652.

[17] ibid.

[18] Zhang Xiaoling. China as an Emerging Soft Power: Winning Hearts and Minds through Communicating with Foreign Publics (Discussion Paper 35), October 2008. University of Nottingham: China Policy Institute.

[19] Don Starr. “The Chinese language education in Europe: the Confucius Institutes”, European Journal of Education, 44: 1 (2009): 65-82.

[20] To, 2014. The inclusion of Hollywood stars such as Christian Bale also points to the intention to reach an international market, and certainly a specific niche of diasporic ethnic Chinese in “Western” countries who desire to connect and re-connect with these histories. This issue raises questions about the development of a transnational, collective identification to a particular remembrance of history in relation to hegemonic power. For a more comprehensive discussion on this issue, particularly in regard to the Japanese imperial invasion with reference to theories of “affect” and “transgenerational haunting”,  see To, 2014.

[21] To, 2014. For example, Lu Chuan’s film, City of Life and Death (2009) presents a chilling, graphic vision of the Nanjing Massacre. However, Lu’s film meditates on the difficult question of what defines one’s humanity if one commits great atrocities? Lu allows himself to portray some of these Japanese perpetrators with sympathy and moral shades of grey.

[22] Rey Chow. “Introduction: On Chineseness as a Theoretical Problem”, boundary 2, Modern Chinese Literary and Cultural Studies in the Age of Theory: Reimagining a Field, 25:3 (Autumn, 1998), pp. 6-7; Chris Berry and Mary Farquhar, China On Screen (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006), 18.

[23] In the context of the Tiger narrative, the PLA (Communists) were battling the KMT (Republicans) for control over China, continuing a decades long war for power and governance.

[24] My paper was written based on viewing the 2-D version of this film. According to film reviews, some 3-D effects in cinemas focused on artillery and weapons-fire. These include flying bullets, shells, and cannon fire appeared to fire straight at the audience, and exploding grenades in slow-motion. Please see Yang Fan, “The Taking of Tiger Mountain,” Global Times, December 28 2014, accessed May 5, 2015, http://www.globaltimes.cn/content/898920.shtml; “Film Review: The Taking of Tiger Mountain,” December 31 2014, Film Journal International, accessed May 5, 2015, http://www.filmjournal.com/content/film-review-taking-tiger-mountain; Maggie Lee. “Film Review: ‘The Taking of Tiger Mountain’,” Variety, January 1, 2015, accessed May 5, 2015, http://variety.com/2015/film/asia/film-review-the-taking-of-tiger-mountain-1201388202/

[25] Box office earnings reached over $144 Million USD by March 2, 2015.

[26] Tom Gunning. “The Cinema of Attractions: Early Film, its Spectator and the Avant Garde.” In Early Cinema: Space, Frame, Narrative. Ed. Adam Barker, Thomas Elsaesser (BFI Publishing, 1990). 56-62. My assertion here refers to Tom Gunning’s ‘cinema of attractions.’ Speaking about early American cinema, Gunning says that the cinema of attractions, “directly solicits spectator attention, inciting visual curiosity, and supplying pleasure through an exciting spectacle- a unique event, whether fictional or documentary, that is of interest in itself” (p. 58). The debate between Chinese film and Gunning’s concept is beyond the scope of this paper but certainly worthy of future discussion. For excellent discussions on the cinema of attraction in reference to contemporary cinema technology such as 3D, please see Miriam Ross, 3D Cinema: Optical illusions and Tactile Experiences (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015).

[27] Jason McGrath. “Cultural Revolution Model Opera Films and the Realist Tradition in Chinese Cinema”. The Opera Quarterly 26: 2-3 (2010): 343-376. This “histrionic” mode of acting contrasts the “verisimilar” mode, which is more similar to modern day approaches that preference a “natural”, realistic acting style that masks the very constructedness of acting.

[28] McGrath, 2010, 11.

[29] McGrath, 2010,  8-9.

[30] Xuelei Huang, “Intellectuals and Cultural Production at the Mingxing (Star) Motion Picture Company (1922-1938)”. 2009. Doctoral Dissertation; McGrath, 2010 in discussion of the communist utopia.  See also Clark, 2008.

[31] R.S. Watson (ed.), Memory, History, and Opposition Under State Socialism (Santa Fe: School of American Research Press, 1994), 2.

[32] Evans and Donald, 1999,  2. See also Lufrano, 2nd ed., vol. 2 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000), 474-475.

[33] Poster M104. “Army and People are One Family”. University of Westminster Chinese Poster Collection, London, UK (Digital archive version), November 1973, accessed March 12, 2015, http://chinaposters.westminster.ac.uk/zenphoto/Children/1402_big_0000.jpg. The curator’s description says of this poster: “A soldier cuts a young boy’s hair. The boy carries a small toy rifle. A papercut in the window says ‘Embrace the army, love the people’.”

[34] Poster M41, “Be Brave Against Your Enemy”. University of Westminster Chinese Poster Collection, London, UK (Digital archive version), January 1979, accessed March 12, 2015, http://chinaposters.westminster.ac.uk/zenphoto/Children/1353_big_0000.jpg.

[35] Poster M38, “Fight Instigator”. University of Westminster Chinese Poster Collection, London, UK (Digital archive version). August 1976, accessed March 12, 2015, http://chinaposters.westminster.ac.uk/zenphoto/Children/1351_big_0000.jpg. The poster depicts a cropped image of Little Dove, Knotti and Little Juan getting ready to join the PLA at their final battle. In both the poster and in Tiger, wooden staffs are present in the poster.

[36] Poster K6, “I love the blue sky of the motherland”. University of Westminster Chinese Poster Collection, London, UK (Digital archive version). June 1976, accessed 14 March, 2015, http://chinaposters.westminster.ac.uk/zenphoto/National%20Festival%20and%20Patriotism/1292_big_0000.jpg

[37] Jill Bennett, Empathic Vision (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005).

[38] My initial thought of this scene was of it demonstrating the soldiers’ filial piety for their elder. While this might also be true, a more accurate Communist narrative is the revolutionary army’s commitment to the poor, and to the common people/villagers. In the Cultural Revolution, Confucian origins of filial piety were overturned by Mao. Sons and daughters would turn against their fathers and mothers and report them to the Red Army if they betrayed the Revolutionary cause. This also pointed to Mao’s status as the revolutionary’s “true” father. Nonetheless, within Revolutionary supporters, respect for senior authorities was embedded within cultural consciousness.

[39] As described by the PLA 8181 Troop political department itself: “A PLA soldier wears a doctor’s coat and holds a stethoscope. Another PLA soldier plays a musical instrument, while a female soldier sits with an old lady on the kang. The room is full of peasants, and a barefoot doctor is carrying satchel on the table. Set in northern China.”

[40] Evans and Donald 1999,  2.

[41] To, 2014,  3.

[42] Sara Ahmed, Claudia Castañeda, Anne-Marie Fortier, and Mimi Sheller (2003). “Introduction: Uprootings/Regroundings: Questions of Home and Migration”, in S. Ahmed, C. Castañeda, A Fortier, and M. Sheller (eds.), Uprooting/Regroundings: Questions of Home and Migration. Oxford: Berg), p. 2.  In contrast to traditional notions of “diaspora” which can be problematic due to the issue colonial histories for some cultures, Ahmed et al. see diaspora differently. They argue for a position of ‘regroundings—of identity, culture, nation, diaspora—[that] can both resist and reproduce hegemonic forms of home and belonging’,  2.

[43] Laura Marks, Skin of the Film (Texas: University of Texas Press, 2000), 24.

[44] Alison Landsberg, Prosthetic Memory: The Transformation of American Remembrance in the Age of Mass Culture (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004). According to Landsberg, “Prosthetic memories are adopted as the result of a person’s experience with a mass cultural technology of memory that dramatizes or recreates a history that he or she did not live”, 29.

[45] Chua, 2012,  23,129. For Chua, this was evident in the development of the Korean wave. According to Chua, this helped transform the international, public perception of South Korea from a marginalized country enslaved as a source of comfort women for colonial oppressors like the Japanese imperial army, to one that became envied for their beautiful women, handsome men, and trendy fashion.

 

Notes on Contributor

Nathan M.L. To has a Ph.D from the Media and Communication Department at Goldsmiths, University of London. His research explores the entanglement between affect, media, diasporas and the intergenerational transmission of trauma through distributed, mediated visions of memory in the 2nd generation Chinese-Canadian experience. Prior to Goldsmiths, he studied his MA in Canada specializing in Counselling Psychology. He is certified as a clinical counselor in Canada and continues to consult as a Media Psychology/Clinical Researcher-Consultant. Overall, Nathan’s diverse background has developed interdisciplinary research interests including trauma and memory studies, cultural studies, critical media psychology, Asian studies, diaspora, and digital media research.

 

Bibliography

Ahmed, Sara, Castañeda, Claudia, Fortier, Anne-Marie, Sheller, Mimi. “Introduction: Uprootings/Regroundings: Questions of home and migration’, in S. Ahmed, C. Castañeda, A Fortier, and M. Sheller (eds.), Uprooting/Regroundings: Questions of Home and Migration. 1-22. Oxford: Berg. 2003.

Andrew, Anita, and John A. Rapp. “Other Imperial Predecessors”. In Autocracy and China’s Rebel Founding Emperors: Comparing Chairman Mao and Ming Taizu, edited by Anita Andrew & John Rapp,  13-28. Oxford: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers Inc., 2000.

Bagshaw, Clare. A China Moment. 2012. Xlibris Corporation.

Bennett, Jill. Empathic Vision. Stanford:Stanford University Press, 2005.

Berry, Chris and Farquhar, Mary. China On Screen. New York: Columbia University Press, 2006.

Cho, Grace M. (2008) Haunting the Korean Diaspora: Shame, Secrecy, and the Forgotten War. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008.

Chow, Rey. “Introduction: On Chineseness as a Theoretical Problem”, boundary 2, Modern Chinese Literary and Cultural Studies in the Age of Theory: Reimagining a Field, 25:3 (Autumn, 1998): 1-24.

Chow, Rey. “Sentimental Returns: On the Uses of the Everyday in the Recent Films of Zhang Yimou and Wong Kar-wai. New Literary History, 33:4 (Autumn 2002),  639-654.

Chua Beng-Huat. Structure, Audience and Soft Power in East Asian Pop Culture Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2012.

Clark, Paul. The Chinese Cultural Revolution: A History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Davoine, Francoise, and Jean-Max Gaudillière. History Beyond Trauma. New York:  Other Press, 2004.

de Bary, Wm. Theodore, and Richard Lufrano.Sources of Chinese Tradition: From 1600 Through the Twentieth Century (compilation), 2nd edition, Volume 2,  474-475. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000.

Edney, Kingsley. The Globalization of Chinese Propaganda: International Power and Domestic Political Cohesion, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.

Evans, Harriet and Stephanie Donald,. “Introducing Posters of China’s Cultural Revolution”. In Picturing Power in the People’s Republic of China: Posters of the Cultural Revolution, edited byHarriet Evans and Stephanie Donald, Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 1999. p. 2.

“Film Review: The Taking of Tiger Mountain,” December 31 2014, Film Journal International. Accessed May 5, 2015. http://www.filmjournal.com/content/film-review-taking-tiger-mountain

Gunning, Tom. “The Cinema of Attractions: Early Film, its Spectator and the Avant Garde.” In Early Cinema: Space, Frame, Narrative, edited by Adam Barker, Thomas Elsaesser. BFI Publishing, 1990.  56-62.

Lee, Maggie. “Film Review: ‘The Taking of Tiger Mountain’,” Variety, January 1, 2015. Accessed May 5, 2015. http://variety.com/2015/film/asia/film-review-the-taking-of-tiger-mountain-1201388202/

Huang, Xuelei. Intellectuals and Cultural Production at the Mingxing (Star) Motion Picture Company (1922-1938). 2009. Doctoral Dissertation.

Hymans, Jacques, E. C. “India’s soft power and vulnerability”, India Review, 4:2 (2009), 234 – 265.

Landsberg, Alison. Prosthetic Memory: The Transformation of American Remembrance in the Age of Mass Culture. New York: Columbia University Press, 2004.

Lary, Diane. The Chinese People at War: Human Suffering and Social Transformation. 1937-1945. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

Marks, Laura.  Skin of the Film. Texas: University of Texas Press,2000.

McGrath, Jason. “Cultural Revolution model opera films and the realist tradition in Chinese cinema”. The Opera Quarterly 26:2-3 (2010),  343-376.

Nye, Joseph. Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics. New York: Public Affairs, 2004.

Rist, Peter. “Zhang Yimou’s The Road Home”. Off Screen, 6:8 (August 2002). [Online Journal]. Retrieved March 14, 2015. http://offscreen.com/view/road_home.

Ross, Miriam. 3D Cinema: Optical Illusions and Tactile Experiences. London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2015.

Starr, Don. “The Chinese language education in Europe: the Confucius Institutes”, European Journal of Education, 44: 1 (2009),  65-82.

To, Nathan M.L. “Diasporic montage and critical autoethnography: Mediated visions of intergenerational memory and the affective transmission of trauma”. In Affective Methodologies, edited by Britta T. Knudsen and Carmen Stage. London: Palgrave, (forthcoming).

To, Nathan M.L. “Transgenerational Hauntings, Media, Memory and Power: Diasporic Visions of Historical Traumas in Modern China through Moving Images”. 2014. Manuscript submitted for publication.

University of Westminster Chinese Poster Collection, London, UK. http://chinaposters.westminster.ac.uk/

Wang, Ban. Illuminations from the Past: Trauma, Memory, History in Modern China.  Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004.

Watson, Rubie S.  “Memory, History, and Opposition Under State Socialism: An Introduction”. In Memory, History, and Opposition Under State Socialism, edited by Rubie S. Watson. Sante Fe:School of American Research Press, 1999.

Yan, Mo Red Sorghum. (H. Goldblatt, trans.).  Toronto: Penguin Books, 1994.

Yang Fan. “The Taking of Tiger Mountain,” Global Times, December 28 2014. Accessed May 5, 2015. http://www.globaltimes.cn/content/898920.shtml

Zhang Xiaoling. China as an emerging soft power: Winning hearts and minds through communicating with foreign publics (Discussion Paper 35), University of Nottingham: China Policy Institute. October 2008.

 

Filmography

The Blue Kite (Lan feng zheng, Tian Zhuangzhuang, 1993).

City of Life and Death (Nanjing! Nanjing!, Lu Chuan, 2009).

Coming Home (Gui Lai, Zhang Yimou, 2014).

The Dark Knight Trilogy  (Christopher Nolan, 2005 – 2012).

Farewell My Concubine (Ba wang bie ji, Chen Kaige, 1993).

The Flowers of War (Jin líng shí san chai, Zhang Yimou, 2011).

The Founding of a Republic (Jian guo da ye, Han Sanping and Huang Jianxin, 2009).

The Last Supper (Wang de Shengyan, Lu Chuan, 2012).

The Road Home (Wo de fu qin mu qin, Zhang Yimou, 1999).

The Taking of Tiger Mountain (Zhì qu weihu shan, Tsui Hark, 2014).

To Live (Huo zhe, Zhang Yimou, 1994).