Impression, yes. But where was Liu Sanjie?

By Thomas Hale ( China Daily ) Updated: 2013-05-30 14:52:59

Impression, yes. But where was Liu Sanjie?

The 1960 film Liu Sanjie was very much a product of its times. Despite its roots in ancient Zhuang folklore, the tale was re-imagined as an exemplar of class struggle.

In the film, the eponymous hero, drawn from the peasantry and lacking in education, is harassed by a corrupt landlord. At a pivotal singing competition, the purity of her voice is pitted against the pedantry of scholars, the spokespeople of a malign capitalist model.

Fast-forward to modern-day Yangshuo, Guangxi, and Zhang Yimou's interpretation of the story is almost unrecognizable.

Gone are the political overtones; only those with an expert's grasp of the original would have any idea what is going on.

The title, too, has been changed - the word "impression" appears before the hero's name, as though the certainties of political propaganda have been replaced with the fleeting transience of perception.

Perception, the raw act of perception, purged of interpretation, is the very essence of the show.

The crowd - many thousands of spectators - is seated in a vast stand. All the world's a stage, but this stage really is the world: The drama unfolds on the Lijiang River itself, while the mountains - lit up at strategic moments in the story - are as much performers as the thousands of singers and dancers, recruited from nearby villages.

Zhang Yimou's past triumphs are at work here. The sheer bravado of his 2008 Olympic Opening Ceremony, the majestic coordination of uncountable performers, is fused with his eye for the rural aesthetic, something he memorably captured in his very first film, Red Sorghum.

Nature is the backdrop, but not quite as we know it; a nature imbued with the neon haze of cities, filled with a cast large enough to populate a small European town.

And so, the story has moved from its politicized past to something stripped of narrative; a collection of scenes, a slide show. The music was almost an afterthought. As we watched, others nearby audibly complained at the absence of certain characters, the abandoned plotline.

But none of this, really, had anything to do with character or plot. It was a celebration, instead, of the collective, of a rural way of life in which individuality is scarcely imagined.

Running since 2003, Zhang's Impression Liu Sanjie is also testament to a gradual replacement of ideology with spectacle.

For after all, China's economic rise, too, is so deeply rooted in spectacle: nothing as clear-cut as class conflict or good and evil enters the scene.

Like China itself, the overriding impression of the show is the scale of it all: the acres of stage, the countless performers.

As we left, I had the vague sense that, despite my best efforts, I'd missed most of it.

Impression, yes. But where was Liu Sanjie?

Impression, yes. But where was Liu Sanjie?

 Emma's juggling act  Caustic composer

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