Jiao ma tang hui
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DIRECTED BY: Qiu Jiongjiong
FEATURING: Yi Sicheng, Guan Nan, Qiu Zhimin, Xue Xuchun, Gu Tao
PLOT: Two affable demons come for the soul of Qui, a famous Chinese opera clown; on his way to the afterlife, he reminisces about his life’s experiences.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE APOCRYPHA: The saga unfurls on stage-like sets using theater tricks and practical effects, with an easygoing charm bubbling throughout. The mindless catastrophes besetting the Chinese from the 1930s through 1980s batter fruitlessly against a quiet resolution to survive. Demons, symbolism, wit, and magic realism co-mingle with the tragedy, creating an experience unlike anything this reviewer has ever seen.
COMMENTS: This is a daunting prospect: stage-theater style, a deep-dive into Chinese cultural politics, and an epic length. The day before watching A New Old Play, I quipped that I was certain that this three-hour film would be sooo good, I’d want it four hours long. But I can admit when I’m mistaken. Its theatrical nature gives Qiu Jiongjiong’s film a stylish and deeply cultural resonance; the deep-dive into the darkest times of the People’s Republic of China is tempered throughout by playful humanity; and when the film wrapped up, I could have happily sat through another hour—or more. From the protagonist’s friendly acquisition at the hands of two neophyte demons (they had just taken over from their recently retired fathers), during the long reminiscences at the Netherworld inn, and up through Qui’s final, memory-washing meal at the river to Hell, A New Old Play is a jaunty, enlightening ride.
Old Qui learns that his fame as an opera clown performer transcends the Earthly plane. The King of Hell himself has sent his death invitation in the care of two escorts—demons whom Qui recollects from his childhood days during China’s “Great Leap Forward” and Cultural Revolution, when they come to collect the soul of his briefly adopted sister. As Qui travels from our world to the next, he makes a stop at a wayside inn established by a fellow Sichuan who owned an inn topside, and staffed by the handyman for Qui’s troupe. The “New New Players” were an elite band of performers founded by Commander Pocky to maintain the morale of the troops: first the anti-Japanese rebels, then the Chiang Kai-shek Nationalists, and then the Maoist People’s Liberation Army. Always the same troupe, shuffling to and fro as factional powers ebb and flow.
Qiu Jiongjiong sets the stage with humor from the get-go. One demon laboriously employs a bicycle pump to inflate the front tire of the faerielight-lined rickshaw on which he and his fellow demon travel. The opening memory corrects the demon’s information about when Qui joined the acting ensemble (they admit that certain records have been lost), introducing the concept of “New New Players” via a committee-style exploration of the merits of the repetitive term. The war against Japan is framed as a competition for theater funds and an irritating lack of flour for steamed buns. The civil war is nearly reduced to the swapping-out of a poster on the theater building: first anti-communist, then anti-nationalist.
The bulk of the melodrama (if I might even to call it that) occurs during the famine and cultural destruction unleashed by Mao as he sought to maintain his grip on the fledgling new (new) country. But the focus is on the the actors, and how the downtrodden manage to cock a snook at the gun-toting thugs. As happened to nearly all those caught in the vortex of the “Cultural Revolution”, Commander Pocky falls out of favor, and his actors are forced into self-abasement; Qui, the clown, stands amongst the troupe, dressed shabbily, wearing ridiculous makeup, and wearing a sign advertising his transgression. But as he is a clown, he manages to gather a small adoring crowd with a near-immobile performance, turning those who came to shun and gawk back into human beings through the power of his performance. Qiu Jiongjiong has nothing good to say about the evils of the Maoist regime, but refuses to grant that blood-soaked tyrant even a semblance of power over him. Like his film, all of time is a new-old play, as we stumble forward with a trip and a laugh, forever escaping from the inhumanity which the evil among us would subject us to.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“… filmed as theatrical tableaux, complete with blatantly contrived sets and supernatural fantasy sequences, which virtually shout at viewers not to take the depicted events as literal truth.”–Richard Brody, The New Yorker (contemporaneous)