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Red Detachment of Women

I just finished reading a very interesting article on the China Study Group site about the film art produced during the Cultural Revolution. For a long time I have been obsessed with investigating the critical history, rather than the North American pseudo-history (usually orientalist and reactionary), of the GPCR. Normally I have focused on the broader details contained in the works of authors like William Hinton, Mobo Gao, Han Suyin, and Dongping Han. These studies, however, have rarely touched on cultural production. Thus, while they have argued against dominant western narratives that erroneously claim the Cultural Revolution was some massive and murderous tragedy, they have rarely argued against that other anti-GPCR argument: all the art produced in the Cultural Revolution was didactic garbage. The article on the China Study Group site, however, argues for a proper understanding of film art during this seventeen year period and has listed films I definitely want to see.

My only real exposure to the films of the Cultural Revolution, unfortunately, made me think that every film produced in that period was, indeed, sloganeering and didactic. Not that I am opposed to didacticism (I know that Hollywood films, especially during that period, were also, and often more insidiously, propagandistic)... it's just that I would like to see something more than a simple propaganda film. Take, for example, "Breaking With Old Ideas."

The "experts" discuss how to keep education away from the masses, but radical Principal Lung has other ideas!

Clearly this is an interesting propaganda video, mainly because the whole good/bad distinction is rather muddled - speaking to the general politics of the GPCR. The "bad people" are also communists, but misled communists who want to exclude the masses from a revolutionary-led education. So, rather than the whole "communist versus anti-communist" method employed in most propaganda films, "Breaking With Old Ideas" uses a confused, "critical communist versus misled [or capitalist roader] communist" narrative strategy. Obviously this is a reflection of the entire point of the Cultural Revolution: a two-line struggle between the revolutionary and opportunist factions in the party, the former attempting to unleash the masses on the later. Still, despite this film's compelling engagement with theories of mass education (and it is very interesting to note that Donping Han's "The Unknown Cultural Revolution" chronicles experiences very similar, though quite a bit messier, to those shown in the film), it remains a sloganeering propaganda fest.

Right now I am very interested in finding a copy of "The Red Detachment of Women," a war film produced during this seventeen year period. According to what I've read, this movie is no more or less propagandistic than war films produced in Hollywood at the time. It is not overtly sloganeering but clearly expresses a revolutionary position on politics during war time. More importantly, it's a film about revolutionary women soldiers, something completely unique in war films at the time. All I've been able to find, so far, is this clip from Youtube:

"This is the tactics of the Communist Party. Don't look down upon these women..."

Can you imagine a Hollywood war film in the 1960s focusing mainly on a group of women soldiers fighting against masculinist fascism? Since this genre was (and still is) dominated by a male buddy-buddy narrative, "The Red Detachment of Women" is extremely unique. Perhaps it was possible to make this type of war film in China because the PLA, being a peoples revolutionary army, was filled with female cadres. The other armies fighting in WW2, aside from the Soviets or partisan insurgency groups (usually also dominated by communists, by the way), were composed only of men. I am not saying that including women in the army is essentially progressive (it isn't), though I would argue that (especially in light of Hisila Yami's writing about Nepal) including women in revolutionary peoples armies *is* progressive.

Ma Laohan, in the article I cited above, writes: "Red Detachment of Women, for example, is a masterpiece of timing and characterization, with an implied romance that gives a libidinal charge to the growing attachment of the heroine to the collective struggle that she eventually helps to lead."

Why can't I find this film (or many of the others mentioned in that article) anywhere?


  1. Hey, I might be a bit late but.. I don't know about the movie but you can take a look at the ballet "Red Detachment of Women", which is absolutely spectacular.


  2. Yeah, I found the ballet - I wanted to see the narrative film. Thankfully, some of my comrades found it and put it on Pirate Bay.


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