The Yang Ban Xi are a series of propagandist operas created under the watchful eye of Jiang Qin, the wife of Chairman Mao Zedong, during China’s Cultural Revolution. At the height of their popularity and influence, and at the inarguable order of the government, the Yang Ban Xi were the only artistic works exhibited in the country’s theaters and on its television and radio broadcasts. Yan Ting Yuen’s mixed-media documentary Yang Ban Xi: The Eight Model Works showcases several clips from the film versions of these Model Works (as they came to be called), unfortunately all from damaged or color-drained prints and not in their reported Cinemascope aspect ratios. This lessens their impact, but not so significantly that one misses out on the simultaneous artistry and kitsch factor of the projects, the titles of which translate to such strikingly awkward descriptors as “The Red Women’s Detachment” or “Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy” and which feature various lithe ballet dancers—decked out in Red Party garb and grinning from ear-to-ear as if they’re about to swallow the Jonestown Kool-Aid—performing rousing up-with-the-prole passion plays.
When the Cultural Revolution subsided and Jiang Qin was indicted as a member of the Gang of Four, the Yang Ban Xi fell into disrepute, as did the various personalities who helped to create them. Yuen’s documentary catches up with such Yang Ban Xi participants as dancer Xue Qinghua, actor Tong Xiangling, and scriptwriter Jin Yong Qin, while also charting the influence the Model Works have had on present day China. It’s a tall order for a 90-minute documentary and Yuen’s examination of the Yang Ban Xi’s lasting effects is cursory at best. The social and political upheavals of the Cultural Revolution are glanced over (quite intentionally according to the director’s press notes statement) to make way for a series of ineffectually meta-movie counterpoints to the great abundance of talking head footage, as when Jiang Qin, portrayed by a voice actress, offers snobbish commentary to on-screen events. Yuen also indulges in several flight-of-fantasy musical sequences where modern day Chinese youth reinterpret the Yang Ban Xi, though these are distinctly inferior to their predecessors and not to any specific purpose beyond the sort of camped-up and hollow irony of a Che T-shirt.