I went to see The Red Detachment of Women at the BFI as part of their Century of Chinese Cinema season (watch the trailer, it’s great) on Friday. The motivation was research: Siew-Hwa Beh writes about The Red Detachment of Women in issue 1 of Women & Film. I’ll admit, I was expecting a heavy-handed and wooden propaganda film, but what I got instead was a stirring film about a woman who seeks revenge on her abusers by joining an all-female unit of the Red Army. I really enjoyed it; the woman next to me was in floods of tears. Propaganda or not, the performances and score were as affective as any Hollywood war film.
But the 1961 version that I went to see at Southbank, directed by Jin Xie, was not that same as the one that Beh wrote about in 1972. She saw a 1971 film which is in fact a recorded performance of the ballet version of the story, danced by the Chinese Ballet. You can watch the whole thing on Youtube! The overriding theme of both: collective action is more powerful than individual heroism. I’d love to see this ballet performed now!