Better Red Than Misled

'Morning Sun' sheds light on China's revolutionary red guard

In an instructional coincidence, two of the best documentaries of recent years dig up the files on a violent student revolutionary group of the 1960s. The Weather Underground sifts through the myths of our homegrown bombers. Morning Sun, directed by Geramie Barmé, Richard Gordon, and Carma Hinton, capably deciphers China's Red Guard. Captured via film clips and speeches, the rhetoric of the two groups tends toward the anti-bourgeois, anti-capitalist, and pro-revolutionary. The irony arrives in their complementary purposes: the Americans seeking to tear down their corrupt (capitalist) government, the massive Chinese movement seeking to uplift its corrupt (communist) leader. The films together are an argument against revolution (though not against change), if only because wheels tend to continue turning.

Never more so, apparently, than when Chairman Mao was pushing the tire. Morning Sun is more accurately a documentary about Mao's Cultural Revolution, of which the Red Guards were the shock troops unleashed. From 1966 until Mao's death in 1976, China reeled in terror, trying to keep up with the next chosen scapegoat: teachers, intellectuals, artists, former shop owners in pre-communist days, Communist party officials, children of CP officials, the Red Guard members themselves. "Anyone could be accused," says a former Mao supporter, "of anything." The punishments ranged from beatings and firings to firing squads.

Morning Sun charts these tidal convulsions efficiently but quickly. Historical background on Mao's previous public policy disaster--the "Great Leap Forward" of famine and starvation--speeds by in a blur of stark footage and propaganda pipe dream. The following economic recovery, orchestrated by CP moderates (and therefore threatening to Mao's dominance), merits a couple of lines of voiceover narration. The filmmakers explain who was who amongst China's leaders as events demand, which can be confusing to viewers without previous knowledge. And yet the movie fashions a compelling arc via the roller-coaster experience of its idealistic teenagers.

One leap forward, two steps back: 'Morning Sun'
Long Bow Group
One leap forward, two steps back: 'Morning Sun'

As in The Weather Underground, these once-fervent activists are now subdued and often horrified by their role in the violence. They speak of their belief in Mao as if it were a kind of possession. Some remember attending mass rallies in Tiananmen Square, being amazed at seeing Mao walking through the crowd--or, conversely, acting hysterical because everyone else was. The offspring of Communist party officials composed the majority of the first Red Guards; those interviewees speak movingly of painful maneuverings when their parents were subsequently denounced.

The directors unspool an awesome collection of vintage propaganda, from footage of the massive performance The East Is Red to placards and radio speeches. One of the most disturbing clips shows deaf-mute children being provided hearing aids, ostensibly through Mao's generosity; having been taught to speak, they parrot lines condemning China's denounced president Liu Shaoqi. A simpler film would've made those children a metaphor for China under Mao: Certainly the deadly manipulations of their chairman could reduce people to childish passivity. But Morning Sun's interviewees provide a more nuanced (and nightmarish) picture of thinking participants motivated by romantic idealism, heady power, and revenge.

Perhaps the most poignant section of the film concerns the student rebels who left the cities for the vast countryside. What they found there was the vaunted proletariat, living in misery with Mao's blessing. The former activists of The Weather Underground and Morning Sun share a bottomless feeling of betrayal. All were stirred, as children, by a shining vision of their country's aims--and discovered themselves shamefully misled. No wonder this generation was reluctant to support the Chinese student democracy movement of the late '80s (the subject of Gordon and Hinton's equally complex documentary The Gate of Heavenly Peace from 1995). They had learned the risks of extreme idealism--that it can endanger the very lives it claims to support. Yet what does it say that, since the '60s, youth activism in the U.S. has been on the blink? Who's passive now?

 
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