China, My Sorrow

The Chinese title of Dai Sijie’s semiautobiographical 1989 feature means bull sheds, or rehabilitation centers. At the onset of the Cultural Revolution, a 13-year-old boy momentarily disrupts the local propaganda of his small town by playing a pop record (actually a love song from the classic 1937 Shanghai film Street Angels) as a way of flirting with a girl in the courtyard below; as a consequence he’s sent to a remote labor camp in the Mountains of Eternal Life. Dai Sijie, trained in France, filmed in the French Pyrenees with a nonprofessional cast of Chinese and Vietnamese emigres; he makes the most of his spectacular settings and extracts from this story not so much a grim survival tale as a nostalgic and poetic idyll about childhood freedoma sort of Chinese Huckleberry Finn with a monk on the mountainside taking the nurturing and sacrificial role of Jim. Hampered at times by awkward performances, this is still a worthy companion to The Blue Kite and Farewell My Concubine as a contemporary reassessment of the Cultural Revolution, with an evocative and haunting lyricism all its own. (JR)

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