Film Scouts Reviews

"The Gate of Heavenly Peace"

by Henri Béhar

This is the film that caused director Zhang Yimou to "excuse" himself (although not his "Shanghai Triad") from the New York Film Festival, at the "request" of Chinese authorities. Through its Gotham-based cultural attache, the Beijing Government objected to the Festival giving the coveted closing-night spot to a feature-length documentary dealing with the 1989 Tiananmen Square students' revolt then repression--a feature-length non-fiction made (eek!) by foreigners!

No way we could, in this space, explore the complex political process that led to the Beijing massacre of June 4, 1995--the filmmakers barely make it in three hours. The events started in April 1989, when, following the death of deposed Communist party reformer Hu Yaobang, students occupied the historical Square--also known as the Gate of Heavenly Peace.

Come to cover Mikhail Gorbachev's official visit, the foreign (read: mostly Western) media depicted the uprising as a battle between the good guys and the bad guys, the idealistic (read: pro-Western) students willing to die for democracy and the aging, hardened Communist autocrats.

The reality was far more complex and disturbing. There was dissent among the students' leaders in terms of goals, strategies, tactics--not to mention egos clashes and power hunger (one of the more charismatic leaders repeatedly refers to herself as "the commander-in-chief"; one can imagine that, given a free hand, she might turn into a 'nouveau' Mrs. Mao.) There were also tensions amidst the Government between the hard-liners and the increasingly marginalized moderates. Bad luck, or bad timing, also come into play when, unbeknownst to either party, the students' impatience canceled out the modest victories obtained by the moderates in the Government, the very moment they were obtain! Those are the elements that, in theatre parlance, define tragedy with a capital T.

Going back to the first students' revolt in 1919, the filmmakers' research is impeccably thorough, and they are to be lauded for trying to remain as objective as humanly possible, given the circumstances and the footage they could get their hands on.

In their effort, however, to render the full scope of the complex situation, aware that what they left on the cutting room floor is ten times what they put on screen and what is hidden in the Chinese vaults a hundred times what they left on the cutting-room floor, they try to squeeze in more than the film--or the viewer--can take: at times, I felt like a turkey being stuffed for Thanksgiving. The narration almost collides with the translated interviews; wall-to-wall wordy, the film does not allow the images to breathe and convey what they could express beyond the words.

One also regrets that the interviews are voiced-over as opposed to subtitled: vehemence and passion have a different beat in Chinese and in American English; besides, the narrator's and the translator's voices are so similar than one often wonders where comment stops and translation begins.

Minor details, though, for a film that nearly achieves the incredibly ambitious goal it set for itself.

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