BERLIN (AFP) ― A sweeping Chinese epic set against the bloody upheaval of the early 20th century emerged Wednesday as a front-runner at the Berlin film festival, which is dominated this year by revolutions and their consequences.
“White Deer Plain” (Bai lu yuan) by Wang Quan’an had its world premiere at the event and despite its three-hour running time, drew enthusiastic applause at a press preview.
Wang captured Berlin’s Golden Bear top prize in 2007 for “Tuya’s Marriage,” an unconventional love story about a herdswoman and her two husbands set against the rural exodus in contemporary China, and a screenwriting prize in 2010 for “Apart Together.”
The sexually explicit new picture is based on what festival director Dieter Kosslick called “one of the most controversial novels in modern Chinese literature,” Chen Zhongshi’s 1992 book of the same name.
It tells the story of three generations of rival clans living in White Deer Plain in Shaanxi Province and a beautiful young woman (Wang’s wife Zhang Yuqi) caught between them as the feudal system begins to give way to the Communist uprising.
Peasants toiling in the wheat fields are taxed into even deeper poverty by the local government while officials harass them and rape their wives with impunity.
As news of the 1917 uprising against the tsar in Russia sweeps the country, the rural poor of White Deer Plain take up arms against their oppressors in a spasm of bloodletting.
But some are appalled by the violence and disoriented by the radical changes to the 1,000-year-old system crumbling around them.
One fieldworker tells another who is enchanted with this promise of Communism that “whatever system you have, the peasants will always suffer.”
Wang told reporters that the two families symbolised the fate of the Chinese people as Japanese invaders, civil war and finally the Maoists determine the course of history.
He said looking back at those tumultuous decades was crucial to understanding the radical changes gripping the world’s most populous country today, and the sense of upheaval they are provoking there.
“When we look at the world, there is a big need to understand China, not only because of the economic changes in China but people want to understand why someone who was poor before is now rich and we want to say who we now are,” he said.
“The difficult times that we went through can also show why we lost that self-confidence. I think we are now slowly realising that we went through major trials and changes and I think the film shows how the rural population saw their everyday lives.”
Wang said that like his veteran colleague Zhang Yimou, who won the Golden Bear for his directorial debut “Red Sorghum” in 1988, the Berlin festival had lent him clout at home and abroad, allowing him to direct his most ambitious picture to date.
“I’ve wanted to make a film like this for 20 years,” he said.
He said he originally had five hours of material but the editing process and official censorship had forced him to cut it down considerably.
However Wang said Chinese film-makers had greater freedom now to ask questions about the course of the country’s history.
“(The film) is a symbol of what we can now achieve in China ― to show that things are more relaxed now and that we can be more critical,” he said.
“White Deer Plain” is one of 18 films vying for the Golden Bear in what has been seen as a generally lacklustre year in competition.
Several of the 400 pictures at the festival deal with the theme of political uprisings including a series of documentaries on the Arab Spring and the opening picture, “Farewell My Queen,” a drama about the French Revolution told from the point of view of the peasants.