Thursday, August 21, 2008
THE PASSION OF THE MAO (2006) d. Lee Feigon
Written by Rick Trottier
Creating any type of historical film documentary poses many problems, not the least of which is how to present the subject matter. Taking the topic seriously is important, but it can lead to being ponderous, preachy and perilously dull. Over dramatizing the content can compromise the feeling of authenticity and lead to the viewer not taking you seriously. Too much humor can be seen as trivializing the information and then your film is regarded as irrelevant. Blending all these tonalities can make your documentary eclectic, but it can also lead to inconsistency, and it is that problem that keeps THE PASSION OF THE MAO from being as strong a film as it could have been.
THE PASSION OF THE MAO is the story of Chinese Communist leader and icon Mao Zedong and his rise to prominence through the early and middle stretches of the 20th Century. Working with mixed media of old film clips, a variety of animation techniques and interviewed intellectuals, as well as having a narrator and some stylized American folk and minstrel tunes, THE PASSION OF THE MAO charts Mao Zedong’s life in a chronological manner, starting with his humble beginnings at the Turn of the Century and tracing his life up to his death in 1976. All along this time line, Mao’s experiences with and influence on Communism are carefully depicted, as is the course of Chinese culture and its economy. All this is done with a mix of light-hearted humor, serious intellectual effort and a clear leftist leaning when it comes to political philosophy.
THE PASSION OF THE MAO has some clear strengths. In a time when American knowledge of and interest in Communist history has waned, even as the Cold War came to an end and has retreated into the mists of the past, Lee Feigon’s film is a gentle reminder of the powerful issues that dominated American newspapers, magazines and television broadcasts from 1945 to 1990. While China has never receded from being a major part of headlines, American understanding of or concern for China’s communist past has declined as such knowledge disappeared from 1o second sound bites. For those who know little of Mao’s history or the events that brought Communism to China, this will serve as a simple primer on the subject. The historical content of THE PASSION OF THE MAO is presented in a direct, clean and amiable manner. It does not dwell on deeper cause and effect relationships or pursue tangential topics as more densely woven documentaries generally do. However, for those who have a deeper understanding of the subject, this film may seem inconsequential, biased, blasphemous or ludicrous. Despite an attempt to humanize the Cult of Mao with some very crass, juvenile, sexually-based and even potty-style humor, mostly in the first half of the film but at times throughout, it is obvious where Mr. Feigon’s feelings about Mao fall. In THE PASSION OF THE MAO, Mao is portrayed as a flawed leader, but also as a champion of the true People’s Movement and his positive impact on the economy and culture of China is lionized. To aid Mr. Feigon in his task, he enlists a plethora of Chinese expatriate intelligentsia to illustrate that Mao does not deserve to be categorized as a monster with the likes of Adolph Hitler and Joseph Stalin. While that may be the case and Mao’s legacy is more complex than most Americans have been made aware by our own propaganda machinery, it is Lee Feigon’s blending of tone that does his cause more harm than good.
Just as Julie Taymor’s FRIDA (2002) blended a variety of media to present a fascinating picture of the artist Frida Kahlo, Lee Feigon’s mix of media presentation helped to make his imagery of Mao Zedong livelier, irreverent and a bit more relevant to younger audiences today. For those not initiated in the cult of old black & white film clips or stylized Communist propaganda shorts, such fare may seem hokey to the young, and by mixing in a variety of animation techniques with jocular accompanying music, Lee Feigon made the subject of Maoist Communism less dry and tiresome. However, by blending the tone of this film, his overall direction is a little unclear at first when he seemed to be tearing down the façade of the Cult of Mao. After a fusillade of testimonial to Mao’s beneficial impact has been given and a feature film has run its course, praising Mao effusively over the last half, the end result is the feeling of being a little misled. In addition, to juxtapose bodily-function humor with serious commentary be Chinese-born college professors seems very clumsy and possibly a little disrespectful. I know that if I saw my thoughtful remarks placed beside animated images of Mao’s constipation problems, I might feel like my ideas hadn’t been taken earnestly. Adding well-informed “talking heads” lends an air of legitimacy to your historical content, but the dvd box cover tag line of “Who knew that Communism could be so funny” doesn’t jive with the overall character of this movie. It isn’t really that funny, nor do I think it really every wanted to be. Lee Feigon seems very sincere in his attempt to break through decades-old misconceptions about China and Mao, but to try to do this with simplistic animation, feces jokes and references to Mao’s sexual appetites just didn’t seem to work completely.
It was also not fully clear who Lee Feigon’s audience was intended to be. Viewers who are knowledgeable on the subject of Communist history and China will likely see THE PASSION OF THE MAO as being inconsequential. Older viewers, whose opinions and memories of Red China have crystallized, are unlikely to be swayed by Mr. Feigon’s polemics. Younger viewers may be attracted to Lee Feigon’s populist philosophies, although it seems as if many of today’s young people are more strongly in the camp of conservative, right-wing politics than ever. These same young people may also see the subject matter of Chinese Communism as passé and unconnected to the issues they champion. If Lee Feigon just made a film about a man and a subject that he is passionate about, so be it and give the man credit for being innovative and producing a motion picture that has a story to tell. If he was trying to be a revisionist historian and restructure American opinions about the past and Mao, he may have his work cut out for him. However, as the Red Chinese leadership preached, “nothing wrong with a little hard work now, is there?”
THE PASSION OF MAO has a rather thin extras menu. In addition to a series of previews from Indie Pictures, there is a text-based biography/filmography of the cast and crew and that is it. This may seem like nit-picking, but a liner notes booklet is a better way to read about people and the film. I much prefer to curl up with a book or booklet, rather than read from a TV screen. A “behind the scenes” featurette about the animation techniques used, accompanied by a liner notes booklet dealing with the subject matter of the “cast & crew” filmography would have been the better way to go.
Lee Feigon deserves praise for tackling a subject that just isn’t hip anymore, despite the fact that China has been in the news more than ever due to food contamination scares, resource depletion, its Tibet policies and the Beijing Olympiad. THE PASSION OF THE MAO is a good film for those who could use some “brushing up” on their 20th Century Chinese history. If you go into this expecting a Yale University study on Chinese Communism or a Ken Burns film, you’ll be disappointed. Don’t look for it to be as humorous as it would like to be regarded as being. Be charitable, turn the highest analytical centers of your mind to “low power output” and enjoy the imagery mixed with some facts you may have forgotten. It is a nice step back to a time when the words Quemoy and Matsu were terms that almost every American knew or the name Chou En-Lai was a moniker we all were familiar with. Spreading that knowledge around again, even if it is done in a light-hearted manner isn’t a bad thing.