Secret Drawing, The
China 1965
Directed by Hao Guang.

When Comrade Li Hua arrives in town to attend a party meeting, he is distracted at the train platform by an old lady, falling. He sets down his satchel to assist, but it was all a carefully orchestrated plot to steal his satchel and the "99th secret drawing" inside. The local party police must then uncover every clue to discover the perpetrators and retrieve the document, which will effect "the national defence and the people's living in our country" if it leaks out. And so begins a heroic, and utterly chilling, look at police methods amidst a population cowed into subservience.

This mainland "police procedural" demonstrates the efficacy of the Chinese detective method, which is, to interrogate every person at the scene of the crime thoroughly, then do a background check on likely suspects. Tail suspects to determine if they behave like good party members or not. If they do, confide in them. They, in turn, will be filled with the spirit of the revolution and assist in any way possible. No one behaves in the least bit alarmed that the police are investigating them. Nor do they question why. Instead, they simply and clearly answer questions, and in general behave like meek and mindless automatons who have had the resistance brutally beaten and "re-educated" out of them.

THE SECRET DRAWING stars actress Tian Hua, as the dogged officer, who lives for the party, and quotes Mao when reflecting on her mistakes. In real life, she was a deputy to the National People's Conference. In the film, she is interesting to watch, if a bit creepy. At one point, she rushes to save a suspect from being hit by a train. But she doesn't run. She speeds up her walk, walking faster and faster toward the tracks. It reminded me of a scene right out of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS.

A subplot in THE SECRET DRAWING concerns a concert pianist eager to leave town to visit her home, where her mother lies ill. Only trouble is, her hometown is in a "restricted area," and she must wait for the paperwork to go through.

In the end, the conspiracy unravels and the two cases combine, and one person even ends up being in the employ of the nefarious US Navy. But even more than the story, which is a good and "fair" mystery, by the way (by fair I mean it is logically consistant, by good I mean it's not likely you will figure it out), even more than the story, THE SECRET DRAWING is a sketch of life in Communist China, where every citizen is interrogated, where good citizens help freely and willingly and without hesitation, where even the villains need only a moment to confess, shame in their hearts for betraying the values of communism.

For its rigourous investigation, THE SECRET DRAWING reminded me a little of TREASON BY THE BOOK, a neat little Jonathan Spence book I read recently that details an investigation conducted under Emperor Yongzheng of a possibly treasonous letter. In the end, the letter is traced, not just to its source, but to its influences, and a scholar whose writings may (or may not) have inspired the letter ends up being condemned posthumously, his ancestors arrested, and every copy ever published of every work he ever wrote burned. Whole families, whole villages, are put to the question again and again. It is a tale of the kind of rampant abuse of the peasantry that Communism was meant to fight against. Instead, it came to repeat the abuses, and the similarities between the two governments and the way their officials weild their unlimited powers are striking.

THE SECRET DRAWING was released in 1965 (though, it is a black and white movie), just a year before the Cultural Revolution began, kicking off a decade of mayhem and death. Maybe I am imagining things, but some cast members seemed to have a fanatical gleam in their eyes, others seemed bowed over and tired. It is not difficult to imagine what befell these individuals in the years to come.

Rating: Recommended (Recommended)

Posted by Peter Nepstad on May 31, 2005.

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