Morning Sun

November, 2003, Documentary

This documentary on China's "cultural revolution" may sound like nothing other than a two-hour lesson on The History Channel, but it's much, much more; those who see it will be rewarded with (1) a remarkable journey through the maze of that violently irrational period and  (2) a brilliant demonstration of the power of film as propaganda. Sun isn't merely informative-it's positively enlightening.

Directors Carmi Hinton, Gremmie R. Burton and Richard Gordon mix vintage newsreel footage and on-camera interviews with extensive excerpts from popular Communist movies of the period to capture the sources, impetus and extent of the frenzy that gripped China during the last decade (1966-76) of Mao's life--and the film convincingly fingers "The Chairman" as the person responsible for unleashing what became a reign of violent fanaticism. 

In seeking to recover from his disastrous imposition of The Great Leap Forward, (and the growing power of his closest advisors) Mao, with cruel shrewdness, bypassed his own party's leadership and urged the young people of China--whose future he'd so recklessly mortgaged--to purge the country's 15-yr old revolution by attacking every trace of what Mao vaguely termed "bourgeoisie reactionism". Like Pol Pot in Cambodia, this invitation to destroy every vestige of anything other than peasant class struggle, (whether imported or derived from China's own rich culture) was enthusiastically embraced by the country's youth. With surprising speed and no official support or organization, mobs began to sweep through China's political, cultural and economic institutions, literally smashing anything or anyone that smacked of the pre-revolutionary, now demonized past, using only their Chairman's little red book of sayings as a guide. The results created a ghastly parallel with the worst excesses of the French Revolution; Mao's image as the country's quasi-divine savior, (a fiction he brilliantly created and manipulated) prevented even highly placed governmental officials from objecting to this epidemic of no-nothingism. The filmmakers are especially good at examining the fall of specific leaders, (and their shame-faced "rehabilitation") using the agonized recollections of their now-grown children, many of whom were complicit in their parent's destruction. One such child, now in early middle age, weeps openly as she confesses that she couldn't bring herself to call her father Papa for nine years and wonders aloud at the social/psychological firestorm that swept her into such spiteful behavior. 

The use of public ceremony and propaganda films to support the underlying assumptions behind this campaign without directly condoning the resulting chaos makes this film especially instructive; as Leni Riefenstahl demonstrated for Nazism, (in the Nuremberg rally film Triumph of the Will and Olympische Spiele, her coverage of the 1936 Olympic games) movies can be brilliantly seductive tools of persuasion, inducing adulation and fervor without explicitly stating any apparent reason for it.  Interspersing these film clips with the interviews of parents and children among the leading Communist party members of the era provides ample proof of this generational brainwashing and the subsequent anguish it caused, tearing families apart.

The revolution ended with Mao's death. The nation's subsequent return to uneasy normality was accompanied by political repression which continues to this day. Morning Sun ends by observing that a cult of adoration continues to surround Mao today, tempting many in China to still long for the malign vision of his bloated ego. 

To paraphrase the old Greek adage--"whom the Gods would destroy, they first provide an unconscionable leader".  Morning Sun provides a bracing antidote to that possibility. 

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