A Review of the movie "The Passion of Mao" directed by Lee Feigon.
I am a big believer that seeing movies and reading books about countries before, while and after traveling there can make the experience better. For some of my favorite countries I try to keep up to date on movies, books and newspaper articles. This way I maintain a connection with that country. Recently I read a review of a new documentary called “The Passion of Mao” directed by Lee Feigon and it caught my eye. My parents, brother, brother’s girlfriend and I decided to see the movie.
This documentary had a few interesting parts to it. It was a revisionist history of Mao and the Cultural Revolution, which is new for most people in the western world. Meaning that the voice of the movie was not going to be the normal way the story is told. I had a heard about revisionist versions before and I wanted to learn more so we went to the arts cinema in downtown Chicago. Another perk was that the director of the movie was going to be there for Q and A afterwards.
When the movie was over we were completely confused. Yes there were some interesting and good parts to the movie. The part about how the economy of China grew during the Cultural Revolution was interesting. Also the part about how the sent down youth, children of city dwellers sent to the countryside to work with the peasants in order to learn from them, believed they made a different in the lives of the peasants was interesting.
The main issues with the documentary primarily it was confusing, parts could be seen as offensive, and parts looked like a bad Michael Moore movie meeting a South Park episode. The confusing part of the movie was that it was hard to tell what Feigon wanted to say. Did he like Mao or did he dislike Mao? It was even hard to tell if Feigon were trying to just tell an evenhanded story. This is complicated by the fact that certain characters and facts were completely left out of the movie. Such as the massive amounts of cultural relics and temples that were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution or Deng Xiao Ping did suffer such as his son being thrown out a window or the fact that Mao was dying from a mental illness and was pretty much insane the last few years of his life. These major parts were completely left out.
A large section of the movie had quotes by Mao read out load by a narrator. Many of these quotes were translated the most obscene way possible. I would like to see or hear the original Chinese and know the context because I have a hard time believing people would have had such obscene things in public meetings. Even if they were obscene translating in a less obscene way would have let the movie be seen by a wider audience.
One of the many obscene quotes was “You fucked my mother for 40 years, why can’t I fuck your mother for 20 years?” Why didn’t he just translate it to “You slept with my mother for 40 years, why can’t I sleep with your mother for 20 years?” The shock value was lost because of the amount of obscenity. After hearing several obscene words they lose value in any film. Also the context of the quotes was rarely given just the year making me wonder what was really going on.
Lastly, and the part that offended me the most, was that the quotes by Mao were read in accented Chinese English. It almost sounded like a bad 1950s bugs bunny cartoon. If Feigon wanted the affect of the Chinese, why weren’t the quotes just read in Chinese and then have English script go across the screen?
The movie used a lot of current day animation in order to show some parts of Mao’s life that there was no stock footage of. Such as his early life or parts about him addressing advisors in his bathrobe. Parts of the animation were interesting but other parts started to seem like a poorly made South Park knockoff. The attempts at humor were weak and too often. These jokes had a Michael Moor like feeling to them but with out a powerful punch to them. If there had been maybe a third of the number of jokes it would have been much better. The uses of a graphics were at best basic and took away from the value of the message. At the end Mao turning into an angel or the image of Christ just confused me.
In the end I am glad I saw the movie because if I hadn’t I would have thought I missed out on something. I did not stay around for the Q and A because I just didn’t have any questions and I didn’t want to hear anymore. If looking for a movie to learn more about the history of Mao this would only be helpful if you know a fair amount about the subject already.