Director – Feng Xiaogang – 2019 – China – Cert. N/C 15+ – 135m
In 1970s Maoist China, a dancer with a troubled past suffers bullying in a military dance troupe – available to rent online in the UK & Ireland as part of the Domestic Hits strand in the Chinese Cinema Season 2021 which runs until Wednesday, May 12th
Almost from the moment talented dancer He Xiaoping (Miao Miao) from Beijing joins an out of town PLA (People’s Liberation Army) troupe, she puts her foot in it. Top of her to do list is to get a picture of herself in uniform. Unfortunately, she won’t have a uniform for the first week, so without asking, she borrows one off one of her roommates planning to return it before anyone notices. Not only does her roommate notice, but when the company is unexpected deployed to another location, the journey takes the troupe past the photographer’s where the picture is displayed in the window. Now Xiaoping has the reputation of a thief and a number of the other girls pick on her.
The kindly Liu Feng (Hwang Xuan), who may be the only one of her contemporaries to have seen her file, takes pity on her. He helps her when others won’t. He’s widely regarded as the troupe’s technical fixer – if anything goes wrong, he’s the one who can sort it.
The authorities have high hopes for both young people, but Lao’s prospects are scuppered when he makes advances towards the girl he fancies, DingDing (Yang Caiyu), and she blows an attempted embrace out of all proportion, accusing him of rape and getting him sent to the front. Somewhere in her miserable existence in the troupe, Xiaoping has fallen for the one person who’s been nice to her, but Feng has failed to notice the fact.
When Feng is shipped out, Xiaoping goes to pieces and contrives a posting elsewhere in the hope of seeing him again. She becomes a medic in a field hospital near the front line where he is deployed, but their paths don’t cross even though she is treating badly wounded men who have been wounded under his command.
As it turns out, Feng is a real asset in combat situations and looks after his unit well, but that doesn’t stop him losing an arm. Although feted as a war hero, after he’s demobbed he struggles to make ends meet. And then he and Xiaoping, who stills carries a flame for him years later, run into one another…
Part dance picture, part war film, part romance, the bulk of this takes place within the Chinese military and provides a fascinating look at the performing arts in the service of the State under Chariman Mao, whose death in 1976 marks a profound shift in the country’s outlook towards something much more liberal. His death also leads to the PLA troupe being disbanded, with the dancers who’ve worked together for a decade or so all having to go their separate ways (after a compelling evening’s farewell celebration and drinking).
Not only is Xiaoping the object of bullying, she’s also under extreme stress from her father being “rehabilitated” which eventually causes his death. She comes to the dance troupe hoping for a new start owing to tension with her family, but her initial misstep with the uniform means it doesn’t work out like that. Miao Miao is terrific as the tortured dancer and you really feel for her. Hwang Xuan exhibits just the right amount of self-deprecating charm as the reliable Liu Feng.
A film that really puts your emotions through the grinder, this is at once a surprisingly effective portrait of life in a military dance troupe under Mao and a gripping romantic tale. An extremely bloody and harrowing sequence in the middle of the Sino-Vietnamese War involves guns, explosives, flames throwers and even a swamp, yet the seemingly out of place sequence absolutely fits in with everything else this extraordinary film is about. A terrific piece of work all round.