At the start of his documentary Though I Am Gone, Hu Jie asks his interviewing subject, Mr. Wang Jungyao, whether it was painful to photograph the body of his wife so soon after her death. Wang responds: “Yes, but I was determined to record the truth of history.” Those are his first spoken words in the film, words that have aptly defined his life for the last 40 years. Now, at the age of 85, Wang Jungyao is ready to recount the truth he’s so meticulously recorded over the years – the story of his wife, Bian Zhongyun, a teacher and arguably the first of many victims of Mao’s Cultural Revolution.
In the early to mid-1960s, Chairman
Mao had begun to lose favor in the upper echelons of the Communist party,
caused primarily by the failure of the “Great Leap Forward,” a rushed
attempt to industrialize the country. Furthermore, the Sino-Soviet split was
escalating, while more and more Communist countries were going the way of
“revisionism,” abandoning the “pure” tenets of
Marxism-Leninism. In fact, China’s most loyal (and perhaps only) ally at the
time was, of all places, the tiny People’s Republic of Albania. Thus, growing
ever more fearful of his position after the example of Khrushchev (who was
overthrown in 1964), Chairman Mao launched the Cultural Revolution in 1966 to
consolidate his control over the party and restore the nation to a pure Maoist
ideology. What followed was a sweeping, ideologically fueled frenzy driven
primarily by the youth that sought to eliminate all elements of dissent.
Teachers, as traditional figures of authority, were particularly targeted by
their students, beaten, killed, and humiliated en-masse.
Bian Zhongyun, the vice-principle
of a prestigious women’s middle school in Beijing, was perhaps the first
educator to suffer the consequences of the violent tendencies that overcame the
nation’s youth in those days. On August 5th, 1966, after several signs and
portents of escalating violence, Bian was beaten to death by her students with
nail-spiked clubs, forced into a meaningless confession of guilt, and then
thrown in the trash cart despite her fatal injuries. When she was finally taken
into the hospital by one of her more compassionate colleagues, it was too late
for her. She died shortly thereafter, the first of over 1700 teachers that
would suffer the same fate in the days to come.
Shot with a mix of black-and-white
and color, Though I Am Gone adopts a more-or-less conventional
documentary structure, wherein much of the running time features interviewees
narrating the story in front of the camera, intercut with old photographs and
archival footage from the time. While the film presents evidence from different
sources, thus cementing the objectivity of the story (insofar as true
objectivity is ever possible), it is Wang Jungyao’s subjective experience of
his wife’s death that really stands out. He did not witness the murder
first-hand – and even if he had, there would be nothing he could do. The
justice system was broken, and the nation swept in paranoia. With no recourse
for retribution, Wang’s only choice was to embark on a 40-year long journey to
record and preserve the truth to the best of his ability.
And that he does. The most shocking
scene of the film comes when Mr. Wang leads the camera to a back room where he
reveals a suitcase with all his wife’s things at the moment of her death.
Blood-stained gauzes from her mouth, a weathered silk dress with writing on the
back, her socks, even her underwear, still stained with excrement and urine –
Wang has kept it all intact. Drawing comparisons with Christian figures (by
which he’s been fascinated all his life), he sees this as his cross to bear. To
hold out the truth until such time that the entire world can appreciate it and
learn from it.
Though I Am Gone is both a
narrative of history, and of the manner in which we remember it. The Chinese
government post-Mao has publicly condemned the revolution, yet many of its
causes and consequence are still a factor the country’s modern existence. Even
today, open discussion of the Cultural Revolution is severely limited by the
government, much like the more recent Tiananmen square massacre, which, at the
time of this writing, enters in its 30-year anniversary. In the documentary,
Mr. Wang hopes that one day there will be a Cultural Revolution museum that
displays the entire truth, not just convenient portions of it. Because he knows
that those who don’t learn from history, are bound to repeat it.
Though I Am Gone is available as part of the dGenerate Films Collection from Icarus Films.
John Atom is two things: a molecular physicist by day and a devout cinephile by night. His love for Asian cinema started way back in high school when one rainy night he decided to pick up a rather peculiar-looking DVD of a movie called Oldboy... and he was hooked! Since then, he’s watched just about every Asian film he could get his hands on, and plans to continue doing so. More recently he’s developed a new interest in science fiction, particularly in the interdependence of science and SF, and how one may influence the other.