Sparkling Red Star
China 1974
Directed by Li Jun, Li Ang.

The story of a young boy, Dongzi, who grows up in the thirties as a sort of unofficial mascot of the Communist Party. The story here is hardly important, it is simply the platter on which a heaping, steaming pile of propaganda is being served. Of all the mainland movies of this type I've seen, this is by far the most transparent. It starts with a kids idea of what the Red Army is: "Why is it the Red Army?" "Because they have a red star on their hats." The kids long for a red star themselves. They especially long for the Red Army to arrive so that their families can quit paying rent and take revenge on the landlords. Of course, at first I thought this was just the simplistic child's view of revolution, and that he would discover what it really means in the end. But no, taking revenge on your landlord seems to pretty much sum it all up.

When the movie begins Hu Hansan, the landlord, wants to punish his father, he captures Dongzi, ties him up, and beats him, until the timely arrival of the Red Army. The first solider that shows up, immediately cuts him down before doing anything else. "Don't forget, Chairman Mao's Red Army saved you!" his dad says.

"Chairman Mao!" Mom shouts, full of emotion. Later, every time Chairman Mao's name is invoked, everyone gets all teary eyed and grips each other's forearms as if their humble bodies can hardly contain all the joy they feel. This is usually followed by a picture of a sunrise or field of azaleas while stirring music plays in the background.

Donzi, once saved, immediately cries, "Uncle Red Army!" Later the Red Army is "his mother and father," his father having marched off who knows where and his mother busy arranging secret meetings with the villagers.

They all sing joyfully while the landlord is led out on a leash, hands bound, large conical cap on his head. It's a celebration! But short lived, as the Red Army must beat a retreat, and Hu Hansan comes back into power, even more ruthless than before. The movie goes to some pains trying to explain, in voice-over, the complicated political maneuvers that made the Red Army give up the village. The voice-over is especially interested in letting us know it was caused by some other, anti-Mao group and were not in any way related to or even liked by the good Chairman.

And so it goes. The kid grows up, at first playing "beating landlords" with the other kids, later beating one himself. His dad accepts field surgery without anesthetic, his mom lobs hand grenades at Republican soldiers. As I suppose would be expected in such circumstances, the kid becomes a fervent communist. Later, when he finally kills someone, his friends and family are so proud.

I was disappointed that the film didn't show the rest of the transformation, when the boy grows to a man and finds fault in his fellow villagers for not following Chairman Mao strictly, forcing his elders to confesses and sending them for re-education. After all, SPARKLING RED STAR was one of the few mainland films made during the Cultural Revolution. What better time to illustrate the simple truth that once you've taught someone to love an ideology above all else, you've created a monster. George Orwell wrote some of his best stories about this. There is nothing more frightening than a person who is willing to fight, and die, for an idea. Yet the world is filled with just such people, whether the idea is communism, or freedom, or democracy, or jihad. And why not? There is nothing more valuable to a government leader than a population willing to do just that. It pays great dividends to those in power, at least in the short term, when they are able to inspire, or manufacture, a certain fanatacism. SPARKLING RED STAR provides a good illustration of the sort of inspirational tools a government can deploy.

Surprisingly, SPARKLING RED STAR is a bit of a musical as well, with about three numbers, regrettably unsubbed on the DVD, but one presumes they are praising the Red Army, Chairman Mao, Communism, or some combination of the three. The story has recently been adapted as a ballet.

Rating: Marginally Recommended (Marginally Recommended)

Posted by Peter Nepstad on June 03, 2005.


I saw this movie in the 1970s as a teenager, when it was shown by an organization wanting closer ties with the PRC. I was horrified by the scene at the end where the little boy pours gasoline over someone and then sets him on fire to burn alive. This was supposed to be heroic? I thought the kid was a coward and a murderer. I still think of this film's ending and shudder at its cold-bloodedness.

Posted by: Podlet at May 26, 2009 06:55 PM
Add a comment
Add your review here, or post corrections, agree or disagree, or just share additional thoughts about the film, cast, and crew.
Note: Posts are moderated to eliminate comment spam. There will be some delay before your comment appears.

Remember me?