Ingeniously Taking Mount Hua
China 1953
Directed by Wei Guo.

A stirring war picture that pits a small group of heroic scouts of the People's Liberation Army against a large force of Nationalist (KMT) soldiers entrenched on the impenetrable Mount Hua. If you watch this film expecting shameless Communist propaganda, you'll get it -- but you may also notice, as I did, how very similar the movie is to the average American war picture. The shameless American patriotic propaganda of those pictures becomes all the more abundantly clear when you see the same techniques employed to different ends.

Shot just a few years after the end of the Chinese Civil war, in 1953, the filmmakers and actors still appear gripped by revolutionary fever. And it is easy to imagine why. Once the PLA pushed KMT forces off the mainland to Taiwan, they moved swiftly on to the reoccupation of Tibet in 1950. By 1953, Chinese forces had fought American and UN forces to a standstill in Korea. It was in this environment that the filmmakers sought to look back on one of the PLA's legendary successes in the past.

The movie begins with a victorious PLA liberating the city, and the KMT in hasty retreat. Unwilling to be completely defeated, the KMT general leads his troops up Mount Hua, with the idea to fortify his position and wait for the remainder of the KMT forces to arrive, at which point his troops can join up with the larger force and route the PLA. All he need do is hold out on Mount Hua long enough.

Mount Hua is a famous mountain in China, with treacherously narrow paths and scenic vistas that make it look like heaven on earth. It is a home of ancient temples and Taoist immortals, and features in folk stories and legends. The Taoist Sang Chiung Li, representing strength and power, became immortal on Mount Hua. In the story LOTUS LANTERN, the goddess of Mount Hua drove out evil spirits and saved the people. For her trouble, the mountain was dropped on her, but later cleaved open for her rescue.

There is a saying, which characters in the film quote at least once every five minutes, "There is only one road in Huashan Mountain since the ancient times." And in great detail the film shows the route: 10km of treacherous stairs, narrow paths, and unassailable, fortified positions. Anyone attempting the path up the mountain to confront the Nationalist army would be a massacre. It's up to a small band of scouts to find out the truth of the old saying, and if there is really only one way up the mountain. One need only look at the title to know they're going to come up with something...ingenious.

The scouts are to a man young, filled with energy, and enthusiastic. I can't say I've ever seen a war film before that contained so much smiling. But these guys always wear a grin. They're just so damn happy to be part of the PLA. They know what side they are on, and it's the right one. Even their generals back at base camp are constantly grinning at each other. Job satisfaction in the PLA is incredibly high.

The contrast couldn't be greater to the scowling bunch of KMT soldiers on the top of the mountain. Cold, hungry, haggard, questioning the wisdom of their superiors, the rank-and-file long to surrender and end the conflict. The general, meanwhile, lives in luxury and treats his captains to a banquet where they all get drunk. Alcoholism and gambling is rife.

When the KMT test out their mortars, they casually lob a few into a village at the base of the mountain. The scouts, near the scene, scramble in and help pull families, babies, and even belongings out of the blaze, at their own personal risk. In case you STILL aren't sure who the good guys are, the KMT sends teams down the mountain to forage for food. They shoot peasants, threaten old ladies and moms with babies, and in one scene, shoot and bayonet a dog before kicking it off the trail (possibly, they really did stab a dog for this scene, but it is hard to tell. You have been warned).

The scouts, on the other hand, are distrusted at first, but win the people over at every turn. They share their revolutionary zeal with the poor, the peasants, and they embrace the idea. It's a good reminder that Communism is a powerful and attractive idea, especially to people who have nothing. There is something so noble about the idea that everyone is equal. Yet trying to put Communism into practice leads to mass murder and death on a scale unprecedented in the history of mankind, to the extent where it is no longer possible for thinking people to separate the philosophy from its results, praising one while abhoring the other. But I digress -- in 1953, many of the greatest crimes of communism are still unknown, unreported, or still some years in the future. In 1953, there is still an ideal.

The scouts stumble locate a man who knows of an alternate path up the mountain, a treacherous path that his father had taken in the past to collect medicinal plants to sell in the market to make money for his impovershed family, until one day he fell to his death, like his father before him. This man, the third generation, is reluctant to lead them up the dangerous path. But the scouts are determined. "Your father would never have had to make this dangerous journey, if the system wasn't corrupt! Under the PLA, every man will have his own parcel of land to farm. It is the system that killed your father" (I'm paraphrasing here). The other scouts shout in agreement, "Let's do it to avenge your father!" The man, a tear in his eye (but a smile on his lips, as he too succumbs to revolutionary ardor), leads them up the mountain, the promise of life under Communism driving him forward.

If this all sounds like heavy handed propaganda, it is, it is; but American war movies to the exact same thing. I could find no difference between the two, though the heroes are representative of two different ideals, their actions pretty much stayed the same. Rescuing babies from burning buildings, saving old ladies, working as a team, not as a lone wolf, putting the mission above your life, treating your prisoners with human decency and civility. And the bad guys are sympathetically portrayed -- but only because we see that deep down, they want to be just like the good guys, but there are a few bad generals that stop them.

By the end of INGENIOUSLY TAKING MOUNT HUA, the victory of the PLA is a victory on every level. Not only is the KMT defeated, but the people have been won over to their cause. And in a prelude to the Cultural Revolution, the PLA defeat the KMT by defeating history -- there has always been a saying, "There is only one road in Huashan Mountain since the ancient times." The PLA take a different route, refuting, and replacing, the wisdom of the ancients with the vigorous expression of youth.

INGENIOUSLY TAKING MOUNT HUA was shot partially on location, and the setting is breathtaking, the battleground clearly defined. Groups of soldiers rush back and forth across terrifyingly narrow walkways and cliff tops. The beginning and end of the film depicts a cast of hundreds, if not thousands. One wonders if anyone fell during shooting, as many of the scenes look alarmingly dangerous. Much of the more intimate scenes, and close ups, of the actors appear to be shot on a sound stage. The actors are all quite effective in their roles, the lead scout (Guo Yuntai) even quite charismatic.

The subtitles on the DVD are poorly written, but for the most part comprehensible. The word "fuck" is used repeatedly, which is something of an unexpected choice for subtitling a Communist propaganda picture from 1953. At one point, the KMT General hears a shot fired, and has his subordinate call to find out what happened. "He fired accidentally," the message is relayed. The General: "Fuck! If he does this again I will kill him." Then his subordinate relays the message through the telephone: "Fuck! Chief of staff order, "If whoever does this again, he will kill him." Another odd choice is the use of "brainman" for the field commanders/strategists. As in: "Brainman Yi! What should we do?" It's funny, but strangely doesn't break the mood of the picture: after all, our heroes are grinning ear to ear the whole time, and laughing at the occasional odd subtitling gaffe suddenly makes you feel a little solidarity. A logo reading "BoYing" appears about three times during the film in the upper left hand corner, but disappears just as quickly. But I'm so thrilled the film has subtitles at all, these faults can be easily overlooked. Note also that if you think this critique has too many spoilers, try reading the back of the DVD case, where you will find a point-by-point plot summary, from beginning to end (in other words, avoid reading the back at all costs).

INGENIOUSLY TAKING MOUNT HUA is an extremely engaging, well produced, well shot, and well acted film. I strongly recommend it for anyone interested in Chinese cinema, or heck, anyone who would like to have their preconceptions challenged.

Rating: Recommended (Recommended)

Posted by Peter Nepstad on October 22, 2004.

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