The Red Detachment of Women (1970)

Directors: Pan Wenzhan, Fu Jie

The Women's Detachment

The Red Detachment of Women is a film adaptation (or rather filmed version of) of a Chinese ballet from the mid 1960s. It was produced during the Cultural Revolution in China, which itself made quite an impact on the Western Left (and particularly in the French Left).

The film (and ballet) follows a poor peasant named Wu Qinghua who goes from being imprisoned by her landlord for being in debt through her escape and journey to become part of the Red Army. Throughout the film, she receives training from the Red Army as they prepare to assault the landlord class’ stronghold.

The scenes that depict the Red Army are usually filled with upbeat music and show a joyful cadre willing to fight for the cause. This is reminiscent of classic “Stalinist” films such as Circus (1936) where “joy” is part of every day life and how that every day life relates to the state. In the case of Detachment, these scenes are contrasted with the elite, who are depicted as a classic “bad guys.” An interesting example to highlight how the Red Army is portrayed, when¬†Wu Qinghua enters the camp and falls down, the entire army physically moves down to prevent her from falling; while this is perhaps an exaggeration in analysis due to this being a ballet performance it still shows how the “ideology” is supposed to come through. Criticisms of “binary contrasts” and oversimplification aside, this makes for a plot device that highlights class struggle, and more importantly: the role of women in that struggle.

Red Army helping Wu Qinghua

Throughout the film, women are portrayed as a fighting force, from their training to actual combat (where they take leadership roles as well). This is contrasted with the landlord from the beginning of the film who imprisoned women who owed him debt, and the “tyrant’s” lair, where women were subjected to male rule. While this is all through the lens of the Red Army (and thus the Party) as a whole, it demonstrates the interconnectedness of the two struggles, or at least an attempt to connect the two struggles in this context.

Although the film did have this positive portrayal of women as agents of change, the “hero” of the film who was made a martyr towards the end is a male character. While this makes the film a bit more complicated in terms of portrayal of gender, the film itself still stands as an example of linking the struggle against property and the struggle for women’s liberation (which at the time of this film was an ongoing struggle).

At the time of this writing, the film can be seen in its entirety on “The Internet Archive”

There are also various clips of the film on YouTube

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