Thoughts on Chen Kaige’s Film “Yellow Earth”

The Silence of the Yellow Earth

How folk music (Suanqu’r) becomes Folk Music (Xinminge
How communifying music becomes discommunalizing anthem
How shout becomes echo

Our first scrutiny of how self-consciously modern formulae for defamiliarizing “folk” into “art” (prop-art, that is) under and for state purposes begins with Chen Kaige’s 1984 histoire de regrets Huang Tudi. It is a dark film: the interpreting of the art vs Art transform shows us (only) the tragic side of the procedure, how priest pushes confessor into cognitive oblivion. Party-sponsored Modernism (in context, extreme modernism, grounded in neo-Primitivism) arrives in the personage of an introverted anti-hero (addressed however as “official”), charged with the archaeological mission of uncovering the ancientmost versions of surviving ballad-song. This shall provide the raw material for cultural self-upgrade.

But his pilgrimage into the world of ur-myth takes him through and then into a world of silence. Metaphorical silence at first- the Lawrence of Arabia silence of the desert alerting us to the problem of the pilgrim losing his way. (“Keep to the main path and travel with others….” he is later warned). Then the silence of indigene discomfiture in the presence of this unfathomable missionary. The prevailing sound is that of the wind blowing or sloughing across the Badlands of the border country scissoring China Proper from Mongolia. Overheard words or songs: we perhaps hear them, but for our pilgrim they register as acoustical mirage. Throughout, the silence of that wind never shuts off. But this is whee he must find his treasure and then reconfigure it into “New” music, Party music, Soviet type ballad music.

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