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This article was written By Adrian D. Mendizabal on 20 Jun 2019, and is filed under Reviews.

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About Adrian D. Mendizabal

Adrian D. Mendizabal is a MA Media Studies (Film) candidate of the University of the Philippines Film Institute (UPFI). He has contributed several essays on Philippine cinema to NANG 2, La Furia Umana, New Durian Cinema, Transit Journal, Sinekultura Film Journal and MUBI Notebook. He is currently working on a research project exploring the relationship of time and Lav Diaz’s cinema. He is also the Philippine delegate for Cinema and Moving Image Research Assembly (CAMIRA). His main interest is film-philosophy.

Searching for Lin Zhao’s Soul (China, 2004)

Hu Jie’s documentary Searching for Lin Zhao’s Soul is about the persecution of anti-socialist Chinese activist Lin Zhao under Mao Tse Tung’s period of reform called “The Great Leap Forward” (1958-1962). Made during China’s rise as a global authoritarian capitalist power, the film provokes the return of the ossified ideological remnants of China’s socialist past. What sparks fire in the eyes of Chinese authorities regarding Hu Jie’s politics of representation is its untimely demand to reintroduce the specter of a long unresolved conflict between socialism and bourgeois democracy. While China’s current state ideology recognizes communism as its core principle, its anti-people policies have also disenfranchised its mass line by subjecting them to authoritarian capitalism. Searching for Lin Zhao’s Soul is central to this politics. It puts to trial it the central forces at work of China’s historical, in particular, the ideological struggle in a socialist state, by instigating an allegedly unjustified erasure of one of its bourgeois democratic activists.

During Mao’s “Great Leap Forward”, various economic and ideological reforms were made in anticipation of China’s Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). However, not all civic citizens were commensurate to Mao’s reforms. A band of so-called student Rightist activists of Beijing University wrote flagrant protest poems and articles against Chairman Mao’s initiated reforms in several publications and pamphlets. One of these students is poetess and writer Lin Zhao who came from a bourgeois family in Beijing.

Lin Zhao’s steadfast resolve with the Christian faith greatly influenced her resistance against Chairman Mao’s reforms. She believed in the non-violent form of revolution rooted in harmony, equality, democracy, and peace. Refusing to accept reforms, Lin Zhao was incarcerated in October 1960 after publishing a counterrevolutionary publication A Spark of Fire critiquing “The Great Leap Forward” that resulted to in her being sentenced to 20 years imprisonment. She was eventually executed in April 1968.

Hu Jie’s documentary narrates the tragic life of Lin Zhao. Hu Jie uses various documentary techniques interweaving in-depth interviews with narration of Lin Zhao’s writings written during her youthful years and during her imprisonment, allegedly written using her own blood as ink. A mixture of provocative tragic drama and multifaceted personal perspectives from Lin Zhao’s friends, relatives and acquaintances presents a documentary made to appeal to humane pathos. The documentary ambitiously puts to trial Mao’s regime vis-à-vis the humanitarian crisis faced by bourgeois dissidents during Mao’s socialist reform.

There is a reactionary vision in Hu Jie’s film, and it matters to point out that films like these are what revisionism and reactionary politics stands for, a rejection of the dialectical. It advocates for a reaffirmation of a future that is non-dialectical: a one future rooted in the normative values of equality, harmony, democracy, and non-violence, that which eliminates the Negative, which, in this case, is Socialism itself. At the same time, Hu Jie’s film form is also that which commands the appearance of the Negative, by formalizing the dialectical richness of its material, except that, it holds arrest of its dialectical form by self-consciously affirming its non-dialectical purposiveness. The tragic play of Lin Zhao’s story appeals to the humanitarian crisis while also rejecting the essence of collective human spirit. Hence, what arises is a contradiction between Hu Jie’s teleological reactionary revisionism and the dialectics of its film form.

At its ideological center, the film interrogates the myriad oppositions between the material force of socialism, via the Great Cultural Proletarian Revolution of Chairman Mao, and bourgeois ideological positions of equality and non-violence, which are all deeply intertwined in the nested narratives of the consciousness of Lin Zhao.

Lin Zhao’s phenomenological absence throughout the documentary marks a rallying point, that of silencing the radical. Lin Zhao opposition against the violent proletarian revolution, an individual versus a universal struggle, is necessarily the determinant path of critique of the documentary. It rehabilitates the blanket of individualized struggle as a privileged point of critique which also reinstates the heroic ideal that fits the narrative of a humanitarian struggle. However, the type of provocation the documentary sets is far more than what Lin Zhao has achieved in her lifetime. Hu Jie’s assemblage serves a different purpose that its original content: that is to reassemble the ideological struggle that is today continually resolved not only in socialist states but in all spheres of life. In fact, what Hu Jie ironically did in his reactionary compositing of Lin Zhao’s politics is a reaffirmation of Mao’s teachings on the continuing class struggle in socialist states. The economic reforms during the People’s Republic of China is a first step in achieving true socialist state, but ideological reforms still have to take place, which is why Lin Zhao’s insistence for a bourgeois democracy deeply charged by her steadfast Christian beliefs as well as Hu Jie’s choice to place Lin Zhao as his ultimate heroic subjectivity for his documentary is part and parcel of the continuing ideological struggle in China.

Lin Zhao appears before us, through the film, as a polysemic assembly that ultimately effaces her presencing. She appears as a disappearance, as a recomposed corpse of ideas, all formed in a speculative mold drawn by the witnessing eye of her colleagues, and traversing a historical reality which Hu Jie tries to transpose in contemporary modern China. In other words, Lin Zhao’s representation in the film is a dissemination of presences other than Lin Zhao herself. From fragmentary points, the documentary attempts to assemble a Whole, a figurative ideal of martyrdom that appeals for justice.

Films like Searching for Lin Zhao’s Soul must be studied in-depth by Marxists scholars. Their revisionist tendencies may be local to China’s politics but it harbors a counter-argument against socialism that may be used to harm the people’s struggle for democratic rights in other countries. For example, in the Philippines, the liberal party has outwardly co-opted the anti-communist rhetoric of these so-called Rightists of China, who claimed as victims of Mao’s violent reforms, to vilify the protracted People’s War for a genuine economic and land reform. Political filmmakers can also learn a lot from Hu Jie’s style of filmmaking. Hu Jie uses interviews to abstract its experiential and self-evidentiary facts.

Searching for Lin Zhao’s Soul is available as part of the dGenerate Films Collection from Icarus Films.