A Chinese Life “In Camera”

Pathway (Dao Lu), by Xu Xin, China, 2012 – Paris, March 27, 2012.

Xu Xin’s film “Dao Lu” (China 2012) offers an exclusive “in camera” encounter with Zheng Yan, an 83 year-old veteran of the Chinese Red Army, who calmly relates how he has navigated his country’s turbulent history over three-quarters of a century.

Born to a wealthy family in a foreign concession, Yan joined the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in 1941 because he sincerely believed in the socialist project, and in its immediate capacity to free China from the Japanese yoke and eradicate deep-rooted corruption.

Despite working as a spy in the Japanese secret service, and participating in the liberation of Nankin in 1945, Yan and his wife fell prey to the successive waves of purges. Yet, having experienced imprisonment, slander, physical violence and the loss of his wife in the anti-rightist movement of the 1960s, Yan holds an unaltered faith both in humanism and communism, putting more blame on his own youthful naivety and individuals’ transgressions than on the CCP. One of the few survivors of his generation of Red Guards, he now finds tranquility in reading the classics of Chinese philosophy, teaching Qi Gong and Chinese tradition to youngsters, and penning his memoirs. 

The strength of Xin’s movie lies in its capacity to reveal the brutal and often irrational complexity of the giant Chinese communist machine through a simple narrative and a single, compelling image: the portrait of Zheng Yan talking to the camera. The only additions to Yan’s narrative are a few personal or archive photographs and film abstracts illustrating some of his accounts. Only once is the calm flow of Yan’s speech brutally, lastingly and stridently interrupted: by hard-hitting images of the Cultural Revolution - picturing fallen officials being publicly humiliated prior to execution - overlaid with deafening, discordant, experimental music.

Xu Xin sees in Zheng Yan’s story the same “serene tension” he finds in Chinese painting, an art which he also likes to practice and which has infused his original creative treatment of his subject.

Frederique Guerin, Special Correspondent, The Global Journal.


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