Tone-poem: Lonely Mystery of the Northcountry Hills (Yellow Earth)

The period of post-Cultural Revolution repatriation and resumption of schooling for the about-to-rise “new” (5th) generation of film-makers was not one of simple jubilation or relief. No matter their sent down frustrations, Chen Kaige and others of his generation returned with a mix of affection and nostalgia for the hardiness of the N. China hill-farmers, symbolized by their seemingly uncomplaining plow oxen. That empathy is summarized in the opening music (theme) of the film (played by the suona, a hybrid trumpet-flute), which theme is explored as tone-poem in a plaintive intermezzo depicting the end of a day spent in transit of a distant ridge, – arduous and unoptimistic plowing and nightfall. If there is poetry in the section it flows from the pen of Shi Tiesheng’s below titled memoir of a day in the highlands. And from the subtle ever-shifting play of shadow over the dun-colored loess hills, transforming them from simply barren to a kind of Egyptian they transform into Heinian Gipfeln in the end-day play of Lorelei Sonnenschein.

The influence of Shi’s rhapsodic recollections is indeed paramount and obvious: thanks to it, hillcountry dirt-farmers who’s sudden leap into the movie houses of Hong Kong provoked horror and astonishment (are things still like that?) acquired a second substance, meaning: as heroes of laconic loneliness. (Both sexes, even though the film concentrates on a girl (Cuiqiao) battling with that gloomy sensibility, it is also there on the male side: her father tubercular and dying, for example, who can weep only to himself over his daughter’s forced marriage (“fate”); or (better still because no-specific) the lonely ballad of the seasonal for-hire worker (forbear of today’s migrant labor force) who is heard but cannot be shown… the most gruesome kind of loneliness.

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