Watch out for the Stupid Old Man


Moving the Mountain
Directed by Michael Apted
Sydney Film Festival
Reviewed by Eva Cheng

The pro-democracy student protests in China in 1989 are the best-documented people's movement, audio-visually, in Chinese history.

This rich documentation is a result of a bold tactical manoeuvre of the students to use the capitalist mass media to maximise publicity. They knew that Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's visit to China would attract a huge number of foreign journalists. With their presence, they trusted that the government would be much more tolerant of their actions than at other times.

As it turned out, Beijing's brutality had been grossly underestimated. Many lost their lives in the bloodbath in Tienanmen Square. Many more have been politicised — both inside and outside China — but there is little evidence that the upheaval has been consolidated into a sustained and organised political movement.

Little is left now for the media to dramatise, but the 3000 or so foreign journalists in Beijing at the time have produced something more worthy than most of them are probably aware — the testimony of an important turning point in China's long struggle for democracy. Part of this legacy is embodied in the recently released documentary Moving the Mountain.

Mountain is a well-produced political film, sophisticated in its presentation skills, loaded with excellent shots — a rare decent political documentary on China, at long last. There is little mystification or distortion of the people, the country or its culture, which is almost a standard drawback of movies on China.

But Mountain has not escaped a typical commercial packaging: the broad theme is focused on a personalised story — of Li Lu, one of the key leaders on the Square, with a "colourful" and sensational background, at least in conventional commercial terms.

Li, born the child of landlord parents during the Cultural Revolution, grew up in rejection in a range of mean peasant families and happened to be in Tang Shan when the disastrous earthquake hit the city in 1975. He travelled to Beijing to join the protests while they were mushrooming in 1989, where he was followed by his devoted girlfriend from Nanjing; they married during the drawn-out occupation of Tienanmen. Li, one of the most wanted by Beijing after the massacre, fled to the US. He now speaks in Americanised English and is studying law and economics in a top US university.

The film has done a reasonable job in capturing the struggle in Beijing in the second quarter of 1989. But it carries little on the mobilisations that took place in 150 other Chinese cities in that period. It seems that the availability of motion pictures determines what is "suitable" for inclusion.

Mountain does little to set the struggle in historical perspective. Nor has it gone in any depth into what the students were struggling for, or how, if at all, they were related to previous struggles.

Perhaps the producers are not the only ones to blame. Little evidence has surfaced which indicates that the students vigorously analysed the causes of social ills or developed a strategy to get rid of them. The 1989 movement has said nothing on whether, and to what extent, the authoritarian bureaucracy is a roadblock to real democracy and freedom.

If the political understanding had been there, it would have emerged since the student leaders fled from China five years ago. It has not. This is a measure of how cut off the movement was from the legacy of previous struggles. There is probably very little understanding of the anti-bureaucratic struggles in the late 1950s, 1974, 1976, 1979-1981 and 1986, let alone the pre-1949 anti-Stalinist struggles led by the Left Opposition within the Communist Party in China.

But it is only in the historical context that the name of the movie makes sense. It comes from a Chinese legend of a man nicknamed the "Stupid Old Man" for his endeavour to move the mountain, which symbolises a daunting obstacle to a worthy and important cause. But the man is convinced it will be removed with persistence, over generations.