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In ‘Chi’ and ‘El Movimiento,’ the Revolution Devours its Children

In 'Chi' and 'El Movimiento,' the Revolution Devours its Children

The article was produced as part of the 2015 Locarno Critics Academy. Learn more about this year’s class here.

An eye that spies through the keyhole is the constant image of a Big Brother turned real in Qiu Jiongjiong’s “Chi (Mr. Zhang Believes),” a Chinese documentary about the repression of Zhang Xianchi, a former Communist with an unclean past who comes from a bourgeois nationalist family. The balance between the so-called rule of the people turned into dictatorship and the freedom to fight an unjust law is volatile, and shows its most perverse face. Narrating from a first-person perspective, “Chi” assumes the difficult stylization of politics along with “El Movimiento,” which is a minimal fiction about Argentina’s anarchy in the beginning of the 19th century. The birth of a nation isn’t easy to narrate when you deal with distant, chaotic times in history, though Argentinian director Benjamin Naishtat takes on this challenging task with much creativity and provocative scenes in the dark, dystopian “El Movimiento.”

The evocative scenes that recall history without setting the purpose to realistically illustrate certain real facts are filmed in both movies in black and white. While South American “El Movimiento” focuses on telling the story in a 4:3 format that enables the audience to focus on less context and more of the characters, “Chi” focuses on cold wide shots that keep us at a distance. 

Shot mostly at night, “El Movimiento” starts with a memorable scene of the humiliation of a possible spy by a military-looking leader, El Colonel. The story shifts to another leader, closer to the politician type, whose story will be explored throughout the movie. He is accompanied by two loyal acolytes, a more violent type of guy, the classic villain and the easy gullible one. With a stunning performance of protagonist Pablo Cedrón, the plot follows this anonymous leader’s attempt to gain power and convince people to give him resources to organize “El Movimiento — The Movement,” which will save the country from anarchy.

Under the pretense of this civilizing mission, the gang kills, robs and spreads fear anywhere they go, reminding of a caudillo, an authorial political-military leader. The last scene of the movie is emblematic to illustrate this charismatic populist leader that could or could not be identified with controversial figure of Juan Manuel de Rosas. The film combines some Western influences recalled by the desolated pampas with elements from a political thriller, sustained by this ever-repeating pulsating sound, similar to heartbeats. Yet there is very little information to place it in Argentina or to any specific country and this supports the dystopian world that Benjamin Naishjat created, there are some folkloric elements including some traditional songs. Before speaking to people there is a dictatorial image of protagonist Pablo Cordon, El Señor, who is seated on something that recalls a throne, wearing a costume and his knotted scarf around his neck, with his sideburns and an increasing mustache. His enchanted words, that don’t seem to be well understood by the uneducated audience of peasants, appeal to the people who blindly believe him. 

The contrast is so dramatic that it helps to construct this demonic image of this duplicitous person that tries to convince us of his good will. Though there are some allusions to real historical facts like The Desert Campaign, the intention is not to depict something clearly because that was a national disorganization period of time, similar in a way to Mr Zhang’s Chinese story. The image is so dark and the contrast so high that some scenes seem to be atemporal and without spatial context. There is this wide scene with El Señor and his company having dinner at a peasant’s house where the table seems to be floating in this darkness, you can’t tell if it’s sticked to the ground or it floats. You can feel the tension of the scared peasant who tries to remain calm and the confidence of the leader. Though both in B&W, in the contrast to Romanian “Aferim!,” which screened in this year’s Berlinale and takes place more or less in the same time period, “El Movimiento” transmits so much about the political order with so little. The richness of the movie stays in its brilliant editing and very good acting. Similar in terms of subject and setting to Glauber Rocha’s cult “Black God, White Devil,” “El Movimiento” expresses a darker, yet sensible side of the Latin American bandits who tried to conquer power.

Women in those two films obey and are inferior to men, either raped, humiliated, crushed by impotence in a corrupt political men’s world. There is a very powerful illustration of this idea within the scene when Zhang’s father fights with his son about their opponent political views and the mother wanders through the room nervously, powerless, so she turns the radio louder. Music shifts from this dramatic crescendo of the opera piece to a recurring piano piece that plays through the whole movie. The Chinese plot is developed through the personal experience of Zhang Xianchi with a tools of a very stylized documentary. The conceptual documentary lingers between reality and fiction and swings from first person narration to illustrative theatrical reconstructions of the past. Zhang was born in nationalist Kuomintang family and his unclean past left a mark on his dutiful communist career. Although he was a fervent supporter of the Communist party, he was accused of reactionary tendencies as part of the “Hundred flowers” campaign (soon changed to the “Anti-Rightist corrective campaign) and jailed and condemned to forced labour as a public enemy in 1957. Following 30 years of China’s history, the story develops in first person narration though the voice of Mr. Zhang Xianchi, a leftist turned into a rightist through communist reeducation process. 

“Chi” immerses into deep desaturated greenish tones, sometimes dark, sometimes closer to sepia tones and shifts into the classical black&white for the scenes which relate to reality and are not as represented through conceptualization. While the documentary sums up the Civil War in China, the land reform and the suppression of the counterrevolutionaries, the so-called “The Great Leap Forward” and “The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution” until the death of Mao through the re-education and rehabilitation of Mr. Zhang, Argentinian “El Movimiento” depicts a discreet beginning of a dictatorship that people are fooled to believe into. 

It is impressing to see how powerful the propaganda was that even when the Communists killed his father, he didn’t protest in any way or feel anything. He was guided by the belief that “A man cannot change his origins, but he can change his path.” The recall of this memory is accompanied by a diegetic sound of some flies when he visits the morgue. This adds dramatic tension to this personal, though engaged documentary. The frame drums used to suggest the numerous condemnations, the sound of water pouring constantly in the beginning of the movie, as if the Chinese water torture still haunts the narrator, build this theatrical environment which director Qiu Jiongjiong brilliantly composed. 

Leftist vs. rightist, nationalist vs. Communist, Red vs. Black, are dualities that define power. In the dark past of Argentina’s “El Movimiento” people didn’t define politics much, but the diffuse boundaries between one and the other are imaginatively depicted through conceptual, expressionist means in both movies. “Chi” manages so much without faithfully depicting the reality, and “El Movimiento” proves that “Less is more” when it comes to illustrating a gloomy past. Uniquely fluent in the language of spectacle, both movies use set-designs inspired by non-realist expressionist movies as a tool to suggest significant historical events. While Benjamin Naishtat shows as little as possible with the help of a minimal predominantly night setting, Qiu Jiongjiong shows the night as a stage for a theatrical Méliès type of a representation. Maintaining the connection to reality only through costumes, he uses fake walls, interchangeable rooms and curtains to separate the space and to create tunnels and stages. This theatre of shadows and this kind of a meta-setting which unravels even how the scenery is changed, show us the universality of facts. The shift between a zealous friend of the party to enemy of the state is not a such a big leap and it depends on how the individual positions himself during those variations in power. The protagonist reveals that though he wasn’t a rightist, after the rehabilitation he actually became one, proving how fluid are any kind of political alliances. 

The perfidious party even encouraged the citizens to speak up in order to rectify the party, a way to actually discover its opponents and accuse them of treason. Any individual is just a murmuring face: there is an iconic image of a party member who reads one of Mao Zedong’s speeches in front of his poster and with the ironically placed message “Speak freely, speak frankly, without fear of reprimand.” His lips are moving but we cannot hear what he says. It doesn’t even matter: citizens are just chessmen in this game of power leaders seem to play. In a fabulous scene we see a depiction of this kind of negotiation between KMT (Chinese Nationalist Party) Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Zedong covered in this smoky, steamy atmosphere which suggests this fluidity of power. I am curious about the Chinese reaction regarding this film because of the sensitivity of the subject and I think the director Qiu Jiongjiong proved a great freedom of expression in a country used to repression. It is no coincidence that the Argentinian “El Movimiento” chose to depict another leader to state this fluctuant power changes. 

The vulnerability of the citizen is a universal theme and likewise, the vulnerability of the tyrannical leader is constant. The two movies present a deep insight into the paradoxes of fear, a fear to speak freely and a fear to lose power like the mythological Saturn. The last “El Movimiento” scene focuses on a bunch of interviewed peasants in the style of televised documentaries. Citizens may have rights and opinions, but as Hobbes stated: “It’s not wisdom, but authority that makes a law.”

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