Saturday, June 27, 2020

Update on "freedom" in China: Hu Jie's SPARK and Rita Andreetti's THE OBSERVER

The eponymously titled documentary SPARK details the simultaneous emergence and repression of the Chinese underground publication that appeared in 1960 for the purpose of exposing the horrors of China's Great Leap Forward, a "leap" which resulted in a kind of state-sanctioned famine that is estimated to have killed between 30 and 55 million people. Made back in 2013 by an equally underground Chinese filmmaker, Hu Jie, the movie (seemingly in a longer, two-hour version than the original 100-minute cut listed on the IMDB), Spark, along with a newer documentary about Mr. Hu (shown below), THE OBSERVER by Italian filmmaker Rita Andreetti, is about to be released together in a package entitled SPARK with THE OBSERVER via DVD and VOD from Icarus Home Video.

Interestingly enough and despite Spark being a most necessary and important documentation of those horrible/ despicable times, it is The Observer, detailing the unusual passion for film, truth and art Mr. Hue possesses, that proves the better of the two films -- at least in terms of film-making skill and audience appeal.

Spark takes us on a visit to the execution ground (shown below, I believe) where some protesters of this famine met their fate,

and we hear from a surprising amount of people who remained alive at the time of the making of this documentary, as well as seeing archival photos of them (as below) in their younger days of protest and writing for Spark, the publication. The testimony we hear is varied and, as expected, truly awful. How they managed to survive seems as much a matter of happenstance as anything over which they themselves had control.

Yet the constant jumping around from person to person, place to place, and especially the jumble of ideas, politics, philosophy, reminiscences, poetry (along with current and past events) makes this movie less accessible to Americans and maybe anyone except the Chinese themselves who probably have a better sense of their own history so that what is said and shown here will resonate more strongly. For TrustMovies, the documentary seemed all over the place, even somewhat repetitive, with an occasional memorable statement hitting home. As one old gentleman says now about the Chinese Communist Party's utter misunderstanding of true Marxism and about its lunatic fealty to Chairman Mao: "A real Marxist doesn't worship anyone or anything absolutely!"

And while the names, atrocities and deaths pile up, occasionally one or another story seems to hit home and stand apart. "The party killed its best son," we're told of one man's end. Close to the finale, we hear an all-too-appropriate phrase regarding this huge and populous country and its past and present rulers, regarding Tibet, Hong Kong and so much more: "China, alas!"

If Mr. Hu is less engaging as a filmmaker, despite the absolute necessity of this tale being told, he proves a wonderful subject for the documentary that Ms Andreetti (shown below) provides us. Hu is as photogenic-yet-natural as seems possible: handsome, alert, quick with a smile, humble, thoughtful and consistently present. And while Andreetti may follow Hu's own film-making style in terms of crowding in as much as possible and jumping around from person to place, her style is also more graceful, compelling and easy to watch.

The Observer begins with footage of hand-held cameras documenting the sudden closing of the 2019 Beijing Independent Film Festival, with the entire archive of the festival seized and its founder and artistic director being taken into custody. It was the showing of Hu's Spark that had this festival canceled. It turns out, we learn, that Hu's films are just about as "underground" and hidden from any mainstream viewing as was the Spark publication in its day. How this man has managed to find any place on the film-making map is something of a miracle. And he seems to have learned to live and work within this situation better than you could possibly imagine.

Andreetti talks at length to Hu himself (he clearly trusts her), to friends (one of whom is shown below) and to his wife, who gives us enough personal information that we understand why and how this very driven fellow conducts his life and relationships. It can't have been easy to have lived with and put up with him, but for someone who understands and appreciates his dedication and goal, this was clearly worthwhile, if difficult.

We get a bit of Chinese film history: for decades there were no documentary films in China, just propaganda films. Even now, anything truthful must remain underground. Via scenes from six of Hu's short documentaries, we learn of various people and events, most importantly, the story of Lin Zhao, a woman who protested in life and later even in prison, so that authorities covered her face with a mask so she could not speak. Murdered at age 33, her tale has now been told, and even if it is mostly unseen by the Chinese, still, it exists.

Finally we witness Hu's return to painting (he first began his creative life as a fine artist), and we see a show of his work depicting famine (what else?!) at a local gallery -- which the authorities manage to allow only a three-day run, instead of the longer one that was originally planned. Still, Hu persists. How fine it is that Ms Andreetti has managed to capture him, along with his life and work and purpose, so very well.

The dual set (on a single disc) of Spark with The Observer hits home video via DVD and VOD this coming Tuesday, June 30 -- from dGenerate Films, a leading distributor of independent Chinese film and movies, distributed in the USA via Icarus Home Video. As of June 30, both films will also be available digitally via the relatively new streaming servic, OVID.

Note: for more information of Hu Jie, 
read the interesting article in The New York Times 
that appeared this past Sunday, 6/28/20.

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