Review of The Red Detachment of Women (红色娘子军；China, 1961), A Shanghai Tianma Film Studio production.
Director: XIE Jin
Screenwriter: LIANG Xin
Music: HUANG Zhun
Cinematographer: SHEN Xilin
Art Direction: ZHANG Hanchen
Cast: ZHU Xijuan (as WU Qionghua), WANG Xingang (as HONG Changqing), CHEN Qiang (as Nanbatian)
Running time: 110 MIN.
Reviewed by USC Student Diane Kao
The Red Detachment of Women starts off with a depressing discovery of a slave girl who has had a history of running away countless times and is once again caught, beaten, and tortured in the water prison. Her defiant spirit catches the attention of an apparently wealthy man traveling through her town. The traveler seems to be instant friends with her owner, Nan Batian; however, the audience soon finds out that the wealthy man, named Hong Changqing, is actually a Communist officer in disguise.
The film depicts the transformation of the slave girl, Wu Qionghua, as the spirit and nature of the Communist Revolution taking over China. She is the epitome of the lowest working class with nothing to her name, while her savior from harsh slavery and early death is the Communist officer. Thus, the message that Communism was winning in the war against the repressive old society in all of China is represented by the battle on the island of Hainan, as it is the most Southern end of Chinese territory.
The tone set by the Socialist Realist film is one of violent class struggle and sacrificing one’s own personal agenda and feelings aside for the betterment of the Communist cause. This is shown not only by Qionghua’s “enlightenment” of her mistake in taking a shot at Nan Batian while on a strictly scouting trip, but also through filming techniques and the lack of sexuality permitted. Filming techniques such as music, lighting and color highlight and exaggerate the contrast between the good and evil. In this case, upbeat and encouraging march songs follow the training of the Communist Red Detachment of Women. They always follow beautiful sunrise or day shots of the scenery on Hainan, looking up towards the bright sky through the fronds of the palm trees, thus depicting the hope of a better future that Communism will bring. In the scene where Hong Changqing looks up at the posters and Communist flag on the walls and ceiling, the renewed commitment that those images bring to his moral strength is literally shown with a bright light basking down on his face. In contrast, most of the scenes with Nan Batian are at night, in the confines of his courtyard house. The camera angle also tends to look down upon Nan Batian and his lackeys.
The distinct lack of sexuality represented in the film despite the obvious longings between the two main characters and the oddly emotional devoid marriage of the two Communist lovers further enforce the idea that the Communist cause must come first and above all else. For the protagonist to only share a longingly look with her savior and mentor throughout the entire movie is definitely understating the true emotions that should have been in its place. Even the four silver coins which Hong gave to her at the very beginning were masked by Communist reasons rather than purely an act of kindness. He gives her the coins so that she can buy food along the way in order to reach the Communist camp that he describes to her. Qionghua returns those four coins to him right before the battle on the island breaks out, not for him to remember her by, but to go towards the payment of her first Party membership fees. Later on, after his death, she finds his officer bag with her four coins in it, and instead of being reminded of the loss of an important person in her life, it supposedly reminds her of the Communist cause that result in her rising to the occasion and carrying on the last stages of the battle against the Nationalists and old society.