No one ever accused the Communist Chinese government of having either a sense of humor or a sense of camp, so one must assume the unexpected laughs that originate from the 1965 propaganda epic “The East is Red” are purely accidental. This film, based on the 1964 Beijing extravaganza celebrating the 15th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, was intended to deify the men and women of the Red Army through classical song and ballet. It may have wowed the Chinese audiences of its day (who, admittedly, had few entertainment alternatives to choose from), but viewed in this modern time “The East is Red” is a wildly silly red-retro ride.
“The East is Red” highlights the struggle to rid China of the foreign imperialist domination that began the early 20th century, the corrupt Chiang Kai-shek regime and the invading Japanese army of the 1930s. The force behind the struggle is the Communist Party, which is presented as a solar savior (the heads of Marx and Lenin literally shine in a glowing orb across a red sky). Once the Chinese people embrace Communism, they fervently worship Mao Zedong and his supposedly infallible leadership.
As history lessons go, this is a fairly subjective one: no mention is made of Sun Yat-sen nor the considerable American military and financial aid provided to aid the Chinese in their war against Japan.
But what “The East is Red” lacks in fair facts, it overcompensates with cheesy and often zany theatrics. The sight of Red Army soldiers pirouetting with rifles strapped to their torsos must be seen to be believed. Most of the large cast of dancers and singers spend their time looking skyward clenched jaws and noble gazes – you can’t tell if they’re looking to a rosy red future or watching the Goodyear blimp float by.
Then there is a brigade of dancing girls who pop up frequently in various costumes. At one point they are rural peasants with a mission of making straw sandals to the Commie soldiers. “Bring sandals, sisters, bring sandals!” they sing while waving footwear in a manner that will get the foot fetishist viewers into a lather. The dancing girls then turn up as Mongol peasants, welcoming visiting Red Army troops with bowls of grain. Later they are partisan fighters shooting down the Japanese with toy revolvers. The notion of the People’s Republic of China being created by showgirls is one for the books (or Little Red Book, in this case).
While the music to “The East is Red” is often stirring and surprisingly moving, the lyrics are a hoot. “Down with the local bullies and bad gentry” exclaims one woman revolutionary, while another lyric tells us: “The Communist Party is the sun, wherever it shines there is light.” Ooooooookay! A group of captured Commies facing execution announce: “To be beheaded is nothing as long as our cause is just.” This was obviously meant to be sung by people whose heads were still firmly connected to their necks.
There are occasional moments when “The East is Red” gets serious and impressive, most notably the imaginative depiction of the capture of Luting Bridge by a small brigade of Communist rebels (an elaborate dance staged in a very tight space) and one brief scene where the mother of a girl gunned down by imperialists confronts the captured dollar-worshipers and waves the bloody tunic of her slain child.
But on the whole, “The East is Red” is full of insanely happy Chinese running around in circles, waving large red flags and swords while insisting that Mao Zedong has saved their world. Even by the standards of Communist propaganda, this is an amazing spectacle and it is impossible to take it seriously. Even today’s Chinese seem embarrassed by this film – it is no longer in official circulation in China and is being sold to the world via a Hong Kong distributor who is offering a somewhat scratchy old print on DVD. This print has no credits on it, so we can’t assign blame to anyone specifically (and no details on who made this film are available online).
As political agitprop, this film fails totally. But as an unintentional comedy, “The East is Red” is a jaw-dropping treat.