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Professor Max Bohnenkamp Remarks on Censorship and Traumatic History in 'To Live'

By Claire N. Park, Contributing Writer

Audience members meditated on the resonance between Trumpian social media trickery and the politics of representation in China’s history of cinematic censorship while munching on steaming scallion pancakes and other Chinese fare. The first screening of the Harvard-Radcliffe Chinese Students Association’s film festival was centered around “Censorship in Chinese Media,” which took place from April 10-12. The first film in the lineup, Zhang Yimou’s “To Live,” hasn’t been officially approved for public exhibition China since its release in 1994, but has earned international acclaim. Professor Max Bohnenkamp, a lecturer on East Asian Languages and Civilizations, provided introductory remarks on Zhang Yimou’s cinematic profile, the political and artistic climate in which “To Live” was produced, and the salience of censorship as a topic of discussion in an increasingly interconnected world.

Bohnenkamp reflected upon Yimou’s narrative—one that is culturally immersive and overarchingly historical, as well as intensely personal, providing a lived experience of each of China’s tumultuous decades. The film is based on Yu Hua’s novel of the same name.

“In ‘To Live,’ what stands out and what presumably made the film questionable from the point of view of the censors, is the way that Zhang’s film brings the deeply ironic and emotionally traumatic narrative of the human experience of history in China from the early 1940s to the 1990s that is found in Yu Hua’s fiction, to vivid realistic life on the screen,” Bohnenkamp said.

The film’s plot follows Fugui, a prodigal heir of a landlord family and inveterate gambler in pre-revolutionary China, as he loses his fortune amid the chaotic societal restructuring of the Cultural Revolution. Over the course of the Communist establishment in the 1950s and through the Reform Era of the early 1990s, Fugui learns to cherish his family as they are made helpless by twists and turns of fate. “What was troubling to the censors was the way that the film weaves a historical narrative of the nation that dwelt on the painful social toll and personal sacrifices of all the years of revolutionary mobilization and struggle, marking a stark contrast to the official historical narrative of the State and the Party,” Bohnenkamp said.

Ava M. Hampton ’21 remarked on the intimate emotional narrative embedded within the larger, all-encompassing one. “I thought it was a really, really great way of personalizing a historical narrative, and making something that might feel kind of distant very personal and close,” she said. Hampton, who hasn’t watched a lot of Asian cinema, intended to see the next two films in the festival lineup.

“I have watched a lot of Zhang Yimou films before, and they always kind of destroy me because they’re similarly thematic in that there is a lot of violence and tumult that covers particularly crazy periods of Chinese history, like the Cultural Revolution or the Great Leap Forward. So I’ve been avoiding seeing ‘To Live’ for a while because I knew it would kind of destroy me,” said Frances Hisgen ’21. “I am a little bit destroyed.”

Sophie Z. Li ’21 was similarly moved. “Even as someone who’s not very familiar with Chinese culture, it’s crazy to get more of a native view on the effects of the Cultural Revolution, and the aftershocks of it,” Li said. “And so honestly it was just heartbreaking seeing the different decades pass by, but ultimately I’m glad that I got a chance to witness that.”

Bohnenkamp suggested that effective resistance against the strictures of creative censorship lies simply in the imaginative agency of the audience. “I invite you to also reflect upon the other qualities of the film that come out of you, that inform and yet complicate its tragic and sad depiction of fate, to come up with multiple and unique interpretations of the film after you witness it,” he said.

Bohnenkamp concluded his remarks with a dare: “The challenge to the viewer, and the responsibility to shoulder, for the privilege of getting to see a censored film, is to try to do something constructive and good after seeing it.”

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