Personal Recollections of the Chinese Cultural Revolution
Based on Chinese author Jian Ping's moving personal memoir, also entitled Mulberry Child, filmmaker Susan Morgan Cooper tells the story of Chairman Mao's infamous Cultural Revolution from the perspective of one women who lived through it, and then made her way to a new life in the United States. Morgan uses archival footage, on camera interviews and dramatic reenactments to construct an affecting cinematic hybrid about the author's life, past and present, as she presented it in her book.
Jian's voice over commentary, much of it extracted from her book, creates a through line that defines the connection between Jian's present life in Chicago and her childhood in China during the most fiercely repressive period of Chairman's rule, a time that left scars on Jian, and on the millions of others Chinese citizens who lived through it. Other narration, read by Jacqueline Bisset, injects historical data and other factual information about Jian's background and her experiences.
Jian's growing up in China during the height of the Cultural Revolution influenced her outlook and impacted her personality, beliefs and behavior -- eventually leading to her current concerns about the disconnect that has occurred between herself and her 20-something daughter, Lisa, who has been raised in the United States and doesn't identify al all with her Chinese cultural roots and heritage. Jian would dearly like to change that.
The Story is Dramatic
Cooper uses dramatic reenactments to supplement a cache of fascinating -- and sometimes gruesome -- archival footage of the actual historic events that surrounded young Jian's circumstances in China, where Mao's government denounced her father and mother as political traitors, and incarcerated them -- away from Jian and from each other, in jails that were miles apart from each other, and even further away from the home they had shared.
Jian lived with her grandmother, an elderly woman who'd grown up during the era when girls' feet were bound to keep them from growing to their natural size. Jian recalls how her grandmother took her to visit her father in a faraway prison, walking in pain for the entire on foot journey. Yet she would never complain. And she instructed Jian to say that she was being taken to the prison against her will, following along for fear of being beaten if she refused -- so if they were to be punished for venturing so far from home, young Jian might be exonerated.
In Cooper's mixed use of actual and reenacted footage, men are shown being publicly humiliated and tortured by members of the Red Guard. The real and reenacted sequences are so deftly interwoven that you sometimes cannot tell them apart. For example, images of the actor who portrays Jian's real father, an honorable man who was brutalized by the regime, is seen among archival footage of actual people who'd suffered along with him. Similarly, vintage footage of parading, playing young children is mixed in with shots of a young actress portraying Jian at a young age. This device isn't new, of course, but Cooper handles it exceptionally well in Mulberry Child.
Personal Point of View
This is Jian's story, and the personal memories, many of them tearful, flow as though they were a well of emotion released after years of repression. Jian actually explains -- frequently, in fact -- that she was taught by example, and explicitly, that showing one's emotion has consequences, and those consequences can be very bad.
The film's title refers to a focal point in young Jian's life, the mulberry tree that grew in the garden. Jian observed it year after year, noting how it survived the winter and sprung back to life in spring. Jian considered the mulberry tree to be her best friend, a source of wisdom, strngth, consolation and companionship that she still draws upon.
In her on camera interviews, Jian recalls that when her father was first arrested, her mother and grandmother would never say anything negative in front of the children, nor would they express their feelings about the situation or about what could be done, for fear that the kids would repeat something they said in school, and they would get into trouble. There were always potential repercussions.
In one reenacted sequence, we see the Red Guard enter into the family home and gratuitously break crockery and destroy other belongings.
In voice over, Jian explains that the best thing to do in such circumstances just to clean up and say nothing. Jian recounts how her mother burned all of her father's writings and all of her pretty 'bourgeois' dresses, so they could never be used as evidence against the family.
When in the infrequent moments that Jian's voice waivers and a tear rolls down her cheek, one can easily understand why.
Jian's daughter, Lisa, was raised in the United States, and has a very different cultural outlook than Jian's. She's a very social person, with a good career and sufficient money to spontanously set off on travel adventures with friends. She's articulate about explaining her feelings of distance from her mother, her family still remaining in China and her cultural heritage. She's reluctant to spend time with Jian, and shuns serious discussions.
Jian is candid about her disappointment in her relationship with her daughter, and looks to her own past to discover why they aren't closer. She's honest and vulnerable, and her self-analysis is very touching.
Things change when Jing and Lisa attend the Olympics in China. They are very proud of what China has done with the opportunity to present the games, and Lisa begins to connect -- for the first time in her life -- with what being Chinese is all about.
The bonding continues and deepens when Jian and Lisa actually leave Beijing to visit Jing's family in the countryside. The reunion with mother and siblings and their families is powerfully emotional, and it's the beginning of a quite joyful resolution to Jian's and Lisa's ongoing mother-daughter relationship issues.
Of course, Jian is quite clear that the scars of the Cultural Revolution will remain with her, and Susan Morgan Cooper's vivid presentation of the hardships guarantees that you will remember them, too. The film serves as both an historical document and a dynamic first person psychological drama. And, that combination is very effective.
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