Tensions rise and tears are shed while we follow young Chinese actors trained as Mao Zedong’s Red Guards reliving the Chinese Cultural Revolution.

Willemien Sanders
Willemien Sanders
Dr. Willemien Sanders is a regular critic at Modern Times Review.
Published date: April 19, 2018

In Character

Tracy Dong

China, 2018 75 minutes

What is the best way to say something about history? Or how can we actually learn from the past? Let’s agree that conventional documentaries might not be the answer. At the same time, these are questions not unfamiliar to documentary and fiction makers alike.

The opening titles of In Character inform us that Tracy Dong intended to make a documentary about contemporary Chinese actors, but accidentally ended up with a reliving of the times of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution. «The charm of documentary» is how Dong explains the unforeseen events that play out during her filming.

Spoiled and clueless

In Character tells the story of a group of actors who are cast to play members of the Red Guards – they have been recruited for a new film by director Ye Jin about his youth during the sixties. H

e intends to make a poetic film rather than a realistic one, and seems to cherish somewhat romantic feelings towards this horrendous period in China’s recent history. He remembers a country with a strong character and great, heroic songs.

«Nobody is allowed to leave at any point.»

Dong and the crew of her documentary capture the casting process. The young actors were raised in what is technically still a communist country, but has little in common with the country from when Ye Jin was growing up. To the latter the candidates seem spoilt, clueless and lacking ideals.

 Trained as Mao Zedong’s Red Guards

The actors are initially somewhat nervous and giggly while practising their choreographies and chanting, but they gradually become more and more dedicated. Together they watch archival material of Mao Zedong, read from his Little Red Book (officially Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung) and rehearse songs.

In Character. Director Tracy Dong

To further prepare them for their roles, the actors are taken to a remote abandoned factory for an «experience training». Nobody is allowed to leave at any point. Isolated from their friends, families, phones and other screens – as well as from running water, electricity and heating – they are ‘trained’ to function as a Red Guard unit with costumes and everything that accompanies their new identity. As they are instructed to function as an egalitarian and social group, the collective takes over from the individual.

Collective punishment

In Character has an observational style and the events are presented in chronological order, save at the very start of the film when we get a preview of the Red Guard unit: the already socialised actors welcoming Ye Jin when he comes to visit them at the factory. This juxtaposition of scene chronology results in a somewhat absurd, distancing effect. Other than this scene Dong linearly presents her filming, hiding behind the camera, which is rarely acknowledged directly.

«In a Das Experiment-like way, the actors are subjected to a set of strict rules and regulations.»

Midway through the film, when it turns out that one actor, Jiang Siyuan, has asked to visit his family as his grandfather has turned ill, «the charm» of documentary film making takes its turn.  The actor’s request for leaving the set results in an extensive «struggle session» – a public shaming intended to humiliate the «enemy» nd teach and warn others.

«Is this real and is this ethical?»

Jiang Siyuan also has to undergo a self-criticism session, and others – like the actor who plays his character’s father – join in. After two «investigators» (the crew coordinator and the executive director) review the ‘incident’ – including the rhetoric that go with such an assessment – Jiang Siyuan has to write an apology letter. To make matters worse, he misspells Mao’s name and is eventually sent away.

A question of ethics

All this is captured in a long and rather tedious sequence. Although the conflation of the different layers of the actors’ realities is visible throughout the whole film, here the resulting inner confusion is most evident: the actors switch openly between their «real» identities and their Red Guard characters.

In Character. Director Tracy Dong

There is also the layer of this experiment as an experience of life during the Cultural Revolution, as well as Ye Jin’s fiction-film project and Dong’s documentary film. In a Das Experiment-like way (a film based on the 1971 Stanford prison experiment), the actors are subjected to a set of strict rules and regulations, including collective punishment for individual misbehaviour. Tensions rise and tears are shed. Some of the actors underscore the importance of this project for their career and the need to fully dedicate themselves to the project and its director. Are they showing their best acting here? It is a challenge to understand what is going on and begs two questions: is this real and is this ethical?

 Experiment as experience

In Character does not address this explicitly. Underscored by the statement made by Dong about the charm of documentary filmmaking, it seems the «incident» is merely regarded as one of those unforeseen documentary «presents». But have the actors – through this experiment/experience – gained a better understanding of the Cultural Revolution and its ‘tools’? And if there is any truth in the observation that we live in an experience economy, what does this mean for efforts to learn from the past?

At the end of the doc a group of high school students – giggly and not quite in sync with the experiment yet – are shown acting in the fiction film as extras in a mass scene full of slogans and yells. In this way, they are experiencing their country’s history by participating in the fiction film’s experiment.

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