In Morning Sun, with term-paper attention to detail and organization, filmmakers Carma Hinton, Geremie R. Barm and Richard Gordon tell the dizzying story of revolution and counter-revolution in Mao Zedong's China. Through narration, archival footage of Communist Party congresses and newsreels, we learn the high points of the Cultural Revolution and see many of the players, some of whom were exiled to the "great northern wilderness." Interviews with Red Guard founders and members, a Chinese artist, Mao's former secretary and relatives of "counterrevolutionaries" humanize the historical events depicted in the film.
Hinton, a Chinese art history professor, was born in China in 1949, and witnessed the "Great Leap Forward" firsthand. She conducts all of the interviews in the film in Chinese, which is her first language. Along with DP and co-director Richard Gordon, Hinton has made ten documentaries about China, including the critically acclaimed The Gate of Heavenly Peace (1995). Barm, co-director and co-writer, studied in China during the last years of the Cultural Revolution and worked at a Hong Kong monthly in the 1970s.
Taking a PBS/"Frontline" approach, the filmmakers never leave any doubt about Mao's perfidiousness, or the psychological effect on individuals of their oblations to him during the Cultural Revolution. In that sense, Morning Sun denies that the Cultural Revolution was anything but a period of political oppression, yet Mao's philosophy continues to exercise a considerable influence over the Chinese--in the end, a fact the filmmakers cannot ignore. Although the widely held belief is that this is a scourge the Chinese must finally rid themselves of, the documentary doesn't resolve the apparent discrepancy between the sentimental attachment the Chinese feel to Mao's eidolon and the atrocities they suffered during his regime.
The most thoroughly investigated relationship in the film is the one between Li Rui, once a member of Mao's inner circle who was later declared a counterrevolutionary, and his daughter, Li Nanyang, who suffered the consequences of her father's political dissidence. Nanyang was radicalized after joining a Red Guard group that sojourned in remote Chinese villages. The peasants there told her that many people died of starvation because of Mao's "reforms," contravening the party line about the successes of the "Great Leap Forward," and confirming her father's criticism of it. Li Rui speaks about Mao's brutal treatment of the party members he deemed apostates to the cause, and about how much he missed his family when he was exiled for his criticism of Mao's economic plans. Other revealing interviews are with Luo Xiaohai, a founder of the Red Guard, and Zhu Xuequin, who calls the Cultural Revolution "an age ruled by the poet and the executioner," by the two faces of Mao.
Morning Sun keeps a brisk pace, its purpose to capture an era in two hours of film time, but the drone of the narrative voice, with its academic iteration of facts, sometimes threatens to envelop the far more interesting personal accounts of the interviewees. It is a minor complaint for a documentary that explores, on many levels, the roots of modern China, and that puts into perspective all of the sublime Chinese narrative films which have recently received Western distribution. Few leaders ever occupy a stage as large as Mao's, and it is undoubtedly a Eurocentric historical perspective that has kept, and is still keeping, the dramatic story of his reign from reaching more movie screens.