`The Blue Kite' Won't Fly in Red China Tian Zhuangzhuang's Movie Expresses Criticism of His Country, Preventing Its Release There as It Opens in the US

Article excerpt

TIAN ZHUANGZHUANG, one of China's most gifted young filmmakers, is best known in the West as director of two widely hailed dramas. The first is "Horse Thief," a 1986 masterpiece so innovative that Tian has jokingly called it "a film for the next century," even though its subject - the experiences of a Tibetan outlaw - has roots in ancient traditions of religious and family life.

His other major success is "The Blue Kite," a family saga now in American theaters after acclaimed showings at the Cannes and New York filmfests.

Blending personal and historical concerns with a richly emotional story, "The Blue Kite" spans 14 years of Chinese history, seen through the eyes of a son remembering the three marriages of his mother, a widow three times over. In its seamless transitions between private and public events, the film resembles Chen Kaige's popular "Farewell My Concubine," another drama that has found strong international favor with a tale of individual destinies caught in the tide of modern Chinese history.

Tian's own background encompasses much of that history and makes a narrative almost as dramatic as the stories he puts on the screen. His father was the first chief of the Beijing Film Studio, and his mother still runs the Children's Film Studio there. Even though they were active Communists in the 1960s, their teenage son was transported to the countryside for "reeducation" during the Cultural Revolution period, a time of social upheaval meant to purge China of outside influences.

Later he served in the People's Liberation Army and started his cinematic career as a production assistant for agricultural films. When the Beijing Film Academy was allowed to reopen after the Cultural Revolution ended, Tian became a member of its first new class. There he worked alongside such fellow students as Chen and Zhang Yimou, becoming part of a group known as the "Fifth Generation," because it represents the fifth distinct wave of filmmakers in modern Chinese cinema.

Members of this group have developed many new approaches to film style and have taken skeptical or downright adversarial positions toward government-approved thought.

As a result, numerous Fifth Generation films - including Zhang's brilliant "Ju Dou" and Chen's recent "Farewell My Concubine," among others - have been permanently or temporarily withheld from exhibition by Chinese authorities. Tian has been a particularly outspoken figure, supporting political dissidents and dealing with controversial subjects in his movies.

`THE Blue Kite," which has still not been approved for release in China, illustrates this aspect of Tian's career. It takes a critical view of governmentally imposed excesses and abuses, ranging from the persecution of alleged reactionaries in the 1950s to the chaos unleashed by the zealotry of the Cultural Revolution in the `60s. It shows how these problems affected not only the evolution of Chinese society, but also the everyday lives of ordinary people whose goals were practical and personal rather than political and ideological.

Tian was not surprised when his choice of subject in "The Blue Kite" caused problems with film officials after the movie's principle photography was completed.

"I suspected that would happen," he told me during a recent New York visit. …