Richard Gordon and Carma Hinton, co-directors of Brookline, Massachusetts's Long Bow Group, are responsible for one of the seminal political documentaries of the last decade, The Gate of Heavenly Peace (1995), a complex, powerful retelling of the 1989 massacre at Beijing's Tiananmen Square, for which they interviewed key surviving student demonstrators. Morning Sun is a prequel to the above, for which Gordon and Hinton added on a third director, Germie Barme, a historian of Maoist and post-Maoist China. With even three filmmakers, the task at hand is a mighty formidable one, and is it mostly achieved: to make sense of China's Animal Farm-like Cultural Revolution, 1962-1976. Then, Mao Zedong consolidated his power, and rid China of his "counter-revolutionary" enemies, real and imagined, with the enthusiastic, sometimes murderous, help of China's student population.
"You young people are like the morning sun," Mao played to the egos of high-schoolers and college kids. "Hope is pinned on you." When Mao appeared among them in Tianenman Square 1964, walking through the youthful crowds, they giggled and screamed as if it were the Beatles at Shea Stadium. He took their side when they rebelled against their teachers and administrators, saying how he disapproved of pop quizzes and how, if an instructor is boring, he'd too sleep in class! What a great guy, Chairman Mao! When anti-authority students formed what they called "Red Guard" units, he allowed it. And when the Red Guards turned violent, he approved it. Soon there were Red Guard groups all over Beijing, and, with Little Red Books clutched in hand, they were chomping at the bit to do Mao's bidding.
If you believe in the idealism of youth, much of Morning Sun is drearily depressing and heart-wrenching. How did all those nice young people fall so completely for Mao's devious, homicidal, power-mongering? Isn't it so obvious that his revolution for the proletariat is patently fraudulent? The films and photographs from the period, however familiar, remain devastating: snorting, angry mobs of students attacking so-called "class enemies," forcing old and frightened people to their knees, punching them, humiliating them, sometimes killing them. With the endorsement of Mao.
The filmmakers interview a handful of now middle-aged, and must-chastened, Chinese who were zealous Communist students in the early 1960s. One was an original Red Guard who quickly turned pacifist when his peers started bloodying people. Another had fifteen minutes of fame, after she boldly placed a Red armband on her hero: on Mao himself. Years later, she's an anti-Maoist, as is everyone talked to. Several of the interviewees have a special reason: they were among the tortured, and sent into exile for their alleged bourgeois tendencies.
Morning Sun includes chunks from a series of Maoist-era movies, prime Marxist-Leninist texts. The key film, a Chinese Gone With the Wind, is East is Red, a filmic recording of the all-singing-dancing, cast-of-a-thousand theatre spectacle, which played in 1964 at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, honoring the 15th anniversary of the Chinese Revolution. It's a Holiday on Ice sans ice, with choreographed soldiers and peasants and workers leaping heroically about the stage in hero-worship of Mao Zedong.
The shlock show concludes as it must: with the orchestra leader turning toward the audience, and everyone, on stage and off, joining in a rousing (and required) singing of The Internationale.
But East is Red is nothing, nothing at all, next to a Maoist psuedo-documentary (Has anyone in the West ever before seen this perverse film?) on a school of the deaf and dumb. We watch these children get fitted for hearing aids and, the next thing you know, 105 regain their hearing. Thanks to the caring Chairman. "Their love of Mao knows no bounds," says the gushing voice-over. And what can they do for Mao? Join him in his hatred of his one-time second-in-command, his Trotsky, Liu Shaoqui. The latter is "the enemy of the proletariat and deaf mutes," says the bitter voice-over.
Black humor? Morning Sun traces down Liu's adult daughter, who tells us of his tragic fate. Denounced by Mao, and by the 9th Party Congress, he died in exile of pneumonia, stripped of all clothes at the time of his 1965 death.
Do you know these incredulous things about Communist China? Become about a thousand times better informed: see Morning Sun somewhere in America during its world-premiere run.
(Boston Phoenix, November, 2003)