Date of this Version
February 23, 2009 in The China Beat http://www.thechinabeat.org/
Passion of the Mao is the quirky documentary produced by Lee Feigon based on his book Mao: A Reinterpretation. There’s some things to like about the film. I appreciated the irreverence, and there were a number of chuckle-worthy jokes and sly references as well as several precipitous descents into banal toilet and body humor. (Some of which, for awhile, are also pretty chuckle-worthy.) Mao’s writings are referenced throughout the film, though Mr. Feigon’s choice to have them read using a voiceover that recalled the worst of the Fu Manchu films from early Hollywood is odd. Mr. Feigon also gives prominence to Mao’s fondness for scatological references and bawdy language. It’s funny and raunchy and, for the most part, unnecessary. Mao was the kind of guy who liked young girls, disliked bathing, and enjoyed the occasional fart joke. Okay, I got it. Next.
In terms of history, the first half of the film is quite good. The occasional surrealist cartoon or madcap aside doesn’t distract from a pretty solid narrative that hits the high points of Mao’s early career, a narrative which is interwoven nicely with the larger story of the Communist Revolution. But like that revolution, the movie starts to veer off course after we get to 1949. Mr. Feigon does well to reminds us that the early years of the 1950s were ones of economic growth and relative peace (though not so much if you were declared a landlord or a rightist). His treatment of elite politics in this era centers on a portrayal of Peng Dehuai as a “Judas” figure whose long-standing grudge against Mao led to an ill-fated showdown at Lushan. It’s an intriguing re-telling of the Mao-Peng dynamic, but to cast Peng as having sold out Mao for 30 pieces of Soviet silver in this CCP passion play comes off a bit disingenuous given that there is little (if any) mention of the downfall of Lin Biao.