Review: Yellow Earth | 黄土地 (1984)



What can one say about Chen Kaige’s 1984 film, Yellow Earth? As the chosen feature for the third evening of the Asian Film Archive’s Asian Restored Classics film festival, it was certainly a feast for the eyes, a masterful testament to the harsh beauty of the depicted northwest Chinese province of Shaanxi as captured by cinematographer, Zhang Yimou. I had seen a version of the film years ago and the China Film Archive’s restoration of the film does it wonders—the vibrant blues of the sky and yellows of the landscape more brilliant than ever.

Both part of China’s “Fifth Generation” of filmmakers, Yellow Earth helped to establish both filmmakers as ones to watch when it premiered at the 1985 Hong Kong International Film Festival. Compared to the films that emerged after the 1949 Communist Liberation, Kaige’s film proved to be aesthetically groundbreaking. Without its emphasis on social realism, the film relies on ambiguous messaging and strong imagery to drive its plot, ultimately culminating in its vague ending.


 

Regarded as one of the cradles of Chinese civilisation, Shaanxi’s beautifully cruel landscape serves as the backdrop for the narrative. Its vastness is exemplified in the opening shot, the sun striking down on the yellow earth as the lonesome figure of Gu Qing walks across the land. Scored with the sound of whistling winds, the cawing of crows, and the beat of Gu’s footsteps, we are treated to panoramic shots of the mountainous terrain interspersed with Gu’s journey. It is springtime in 1939 and he is en route to Shaanxi—he hails from the propaganda department of the Communist Party’s Eight Route Army and is tasked with collating inspirational peasant folk sons with the intention of repurposing them with communist lyrics. 

He is affectionately referred to as “Brother Gu” by a family who hosts him, consisting of Cuiqiao, a young 14-year-old girl, her brother Hanhan, and her father. Whether they’re tales of hardship endured or the lack of rain leading to no crops, or Cuiqiao’s poignant reflections upon her impending marriage that her father has arranged for her, Gu finds that the cheerful songs he was tasked with collecting are nowhere to be found. 

The foreword to the film reiterates that “the melody of Xintianyou (信天游) hangs in the air throughout the year”—referring to the folk music style native to the Shaanxi region. Literally translated to mean “rambling in the sky”, the various characters in the film do exactly that, lamenting the very harsh realities before them in the songs they sing. The film aptly opens with one, telling of the hardship of seasonal workers and how their income and employment is inconsistent, determined by the seasons. This foreshadows the reality that Gu will soon see for himself, as the song dramatically echoes across the desolate vastness, so large and looming that one cannot even see where the sound originates from. 

The screenplay by Zhang Ziliang does a stunning job of allowing each character to symbolise the different ways of thinking espoused in the film. Words play a pivotal role in Chen’s film, whether they’re in the idealism of Gu’s dialogue to the melancholic words in Cuiqiao’s songs, they highlight the fact that in poverty, words are all one has—the ability to express one’s thoughts and feelings—are the only ways in which self-agency can come to express itself.



Cuiqiao embodies the need for change and progress. As a poor girl in the province, her fate has been decided for her, determined by financial necessity as her father intends to marry her off. As she says in a song, “among human beings, a girl’s life is the most pitiable, pity the poor girls”—she speaks to not only the poverty in which she has lived her entire life but the resulting ontological state she is confined within. Like those before her, she will be one of those “poor girls”, married off for money but warranting sympathy for their lives have been decided for them and they are all too keenly aware of it, for as “[she] sing[s] of the truth, [her] heart feels like bursting”. Cuiqiao has aspirations - it is clear that she dreams of a better life, one of choice and agency. Gu’s presence fortifies this further, in his stories of the south and how the girls there sing a different song, where “the sheep and goats walk separately / if you want a partner, choose your own”. 

To Cuiqiao’s father, the notion of agency, the de-commodification of a daughter denotes a lack of intrinsic worth—for in the world they live in, a girl’s purpose is akin to that of the financial rewards to be gained from a transition. Gu asserts instead that “[The girls] are not worthless, but they are not for sale”, before emphasising the need for change and how the South has changed in its way of thinking. As they have this conversation, they are shrouded in the darkness of Cuiqiao’s simple home, visually representing the ignorance of tradition that cloaks their lives. Her father represents the grasp of history and tradition of the province, one that still believes that “if a boy gets married, it’s happiness; if a girl gets married, it’s sadness” as he said to his eldest daughter when she returned home after having beaten by her new husband. In this world, suffering is but part of the fate that women are destined to endure.

In light of that, Gu embodies the aspirations of the communist party and by and large, the ineffectuality of what hopes and promises represent in this world dominated by the rules of the land. Cuiqiao does not take his stories of freedom lightly—desperate to escape from Shaanxi and the hold that peasant tradition bears upon her, she begs for him to take her with him, swept away by his tales of women who are both fighters and workers. Now cognisant of the “bitter songs” sung by the poor, he claims that soldiers will know of the suffering of the poor, how it will motivate workers and peasants to rise up. As a form of motivation, the lives of the poor become symbolic, fictionalised, romanticised even. When he promises Cuiqiao that he will return for her in April, when his commander has approved of her request to join the army, Cuiqiao knows of the fruitlessness of his words and her aspirations. 



“Save our people”, the men cry at the end of the film, as they ritualistically dance and beg for rain from the Dragon King of the sea. The peasants return to the safety of what they know, the rituals and worship of the land, hinting at the party’s promise of improving the lives of the poor and how it has failed to do so. It is a common theme that one will read in many essays about Yellow Earth, in how it draws upon the relationship between the peasants, the land, and the political doctrine of the time. 

In the film’s ambiguity, it neither criticises nor praises the party, but perhaps, in its equivocal treatment of Cuiqiao’s fate, points to the inability of any doctrine to have any true impact in the face of the realities of the poor and impoverished beyond that of providing blind aspirations. When life is determined by the fruitfulness of the land, political doctrine feels fanciful and far removed. 

Yellow Earth was screened as part of the Asian Film Archive's Asian Restored Classics 2018.

Written by Melissa Noelle Esguerra

Melissa Noelle Esguerra is a multifaceted writer who likes to explore all things pertaining to art, film, culture, and literature. She obtained her BA (Hons) in English Language & Literature with a minor in Linguistics from New York University. After having spent the last four years in New York City, she now resides in Singapore. 


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