Feet Unbound - Sichuan Suffering


History has a dual nature about it, it either alienates you because it is no longer it is not immediately relevant or you get sucked into a never ending journey. Chinese history, as many would know, has an unimaginable amount of turbulence and pain in it (no wonder we seem to take everything so seriously!). Ng Khee Jin who works in advertising as a creative director, has left behind the glossy and flashy in search of something more gritty – a rarely spoken and painful episode episode in The Long March. To begin to scrap off a chip off China’s history is by no means a daunting feat. Where do you begin? And how does a Singaporean ever get beyond historical scripts to penetrate the heart of a foreign matter?

Feet Unbound does not try to do too much. It is like a child wanting to just follow a beaten path. In the film, Elly, a 28-year old journalist from Beijing embarks on a journey, on wheels, following the route taken by the troops in the Red Army in the Long March, on foot. It is a clearly simple and intuitive way to structure the film with the potential of a myriad of encounters that would more than fill its feature-length dimensions. But a child, in his/her wide-eyed innocent intentions to cover ground could lead to a potentially naïve and transient journey. Apparently, this one was a wise and thoughtful one. Juggling between wanderlust, historical curiosity and emotional breakthroughs, Feet Unbound was a fairly competent attempt at drawing attention to an underrated part of history.
Here is the history: About 200,000 people who were part of Communist Red Army (led by Mao Zedong) took made a journey on foot. They were rebasing themselves from the southern bases of Sichuan which they were imminently losing ground to the Guomintang forces led by Chiang Kai Shek. They made a long journey up north by foot towards XiXinjiang near the Gobi Desert and at the end only a handful survived. No wonder they needed so many revolutionary posters and slogans then! About 1% of these troops were women from Sichuan. Poor them, they had one handicap, bound feet. But that was not all. While everyone was up against starvation, harsh weather and the brutal enemies (warlords and bandits), death aside, they suffered rape. So you get the picture.
Structurally, the documentary juxtaposes the interview of Elly, a de facto protagonist against the interviews of about 6 (or more) different women from the different sections of the Red Army). What results is an insightful cross analysis of women and their dreams in two vastly contrasting eras. In Elly’s case, if there was one thing I could remember, it would what she recounted of a night of urban pleasures like drinking, dancing, smoking (did she mention sleeping?). At this point, we were already two-thirds through her journey and had forgotten the hedonism of modern Beijing where she came from. This reared its head like a sudden reminder of what living life like a modern Chinese woman was about – personal freedom and ambition. That she was not some prudish, socially-conscious activist. In the women’s case, while we heard a multitude of stories, most of them overlapped. There were accounts about extreme fatigue and wounded soldiers whom they had to carry. In face of death due to starvation, they resorted to cooking yak belts and undigested crop seeds found in faeces. There were heartful renditions of motivational songs. But above the obvious, the documentary managed to penetrate some deeper issues like why their reasons behind joining the Long March. Apparently, at that time in Sichuan, woman were enslaved to an unfortunate situation. Men there succumbed to the addiction of opium, leaving women to shoulder all the labour. Faced with fervour of a revolutionary escape, joining the Long March seemed a more meaningful choice.

As the journey becomes more arduous, the content of the interviews intensify. This is perhaps the documentary's achievement in storytelling and editing. I am sure for a foreigner to make the locals pour so much out of them is already an incredible feat. I suspect interviewing a group of seniors who have come face to face with extreme hardship and pain, one would end up with an abundance of raw and disproportionate interview footage. So where do you start cutting? This is where the talking heads portions sometimes disorientated me as Elly moved along in her journey. But I guess it is really tough to know where to plant each bit of information. It is like 6 women's life stories in one documentary. Ok, make that 7 (including Elly).
If I am right in noticing, the interviews reinforced the commonality of their experience. After a while, you forgot who was beaten up by 20 sticks, who was raped, who ate faeces and so on(weathered by time, they looked largely the same by the way). As Elly was still tracing the journey, the commonality of pain mattered more than the individuality of the women. It was only at the end, through the help of biographical text about each woman, that we saw the distinction between each character more vividly.
But none of what they have evolved to do over the decades could erase the scale of their struggles in treacherous journey. Taking off the account of one of the women about the battle at Gansu, I will always marvel at how you can fight with scissors and stones against guns and knives.

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