Daniel Nelson



Image by Youth

You may have heard of the Peoples Liberation Army, but you won't have seen it – or China - through the eyes of members of a PLA dance troupe.

Director Feng Xiaogang's two-and-three-quarter hour epic shows the lives, loves, talent, betrayals, heroism and deaths of a handful of members of the troupe (notably Xiaoping, a talented dancer from Beijing with a family history that is not immediately explained, and Liu Feng, who brings her to the PLA dancefloor), through the Cultural Revolution (from which they are insulated), Mao Zedong's death, the China-Vietnam war and the rise of Chinese capitalism and modernisation.

It shows the lure of sexual attraction, the durability of connections, the fun of comradeship, the joy of talent, the frailties of relationships, the cynicism with which a workers' hero is made and unmade, the horror of battle. It's a vast tapestry, full of idealism, hypocrisy, confusion, heartbreak and tears. It's a soap opera, but a classy, fascinating one that weaves the political with the personal.

The script was inspired by a conversation between Feng (said to be  China’s most commercially successful director), and a novelist, both former PLA entertainers. It was passed by the censors though there has been speculation that its honesty forced a delay in its opening which was to have coincided with a meeting of the Communist Party's National Congress, a time when the authorities go to elaborate lengths to squash any hints of criticism or dissent.

It's longer than London audiences are used to, occasionally sentimental with a tendency to underline rather than allude, but I found it engrossing – and far more of an insight than a wildlife special on China's disappearing wildlife.



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