The history of these operas, known as Yang Ban Xi, is detailed in director Yan Ting Yuen's splendid documentary of the same name, though Yan is careful to maintain an honest and even keel throughout. Intercutting between vintage film clips, present-day rehearsal sessions and performances, and the first-hand recollections of those who performed in, wrote for or simply enjoyed Yang Ban Xi during its heyday, Yan opens a window on the past that Westerners in particular will find almost too bizarre for words, yet which never degenerates to the level of outright mockery. Some of the film clips, however, are simply beyond hysterical, with their impossibly garish colors, neo-socialist choreography and vapid storylines about evil landlords punished for such unpardonable sins as charging high rents and excessive interest. Were the historical context not so serious, the messianic motif of representing Chairman Mao as a bright, rising sun over a cardboard mountain would be the pinnacle of high camp.
But Yan's subjects are willing to wax nostalgic only to a point -- most of their memories, in fact, are of the bad days, the suffering and the fear that permeated every village and town throughout the nation. And though it's not until the film's final third that those horrors are revisited, it's more than enough to lend the film its necessary level of sobriety.
What audiences may ultimately take from "Yang Ban Xi," however, is a lesson on the impotence of propaganda, whatever its form. That mere fact that films once intended to indoctrinate now engender chuckles and shrugs of indifference is profoundly telling, speaking directly to the sophistication and worldliness that globalization has allowed to spread like wildfire throughout all strata of Chinese society. Indeed, it's the lingering belief of Chinese authorities that they still have any control whatsoever over their nation's cultural priorities that may well be the biggest joke of all. Featuring Xue Qinghua, Ton Xiangling, Zhang Nanyun, Jin Yong Qin, Zhao Wei, Huang Xiao Tong and Xu Yi Hui. Directed by Yan Ting Yuen. Produced by Hetty Naaijkens-Retel Helmrich and Barbie Tung. A Shadow release. Documentary. Mandarin-language; subtitled. Unrated. Running time: 90 min