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CCTV vs. classic movies

Ge You asks about cults in a scene from The Year That Was.
For some people, it's pretty much axiomatic that nothing good can come out of CCTV. Here is an attempt to convince them that the formula would be better stated as "nothing good from CCTV will ever air on CCTV." (Please note that Danwei is making no statement in this article either for or against CCTV itself. Especially costume dramas.)

We start with Lenin in October, the classic 1937 tale of the Russian revolution. The "Steamed Bun" parody of Chen Kaige's The Promise and the surrounding legal controversy has led many commentators to bring up Lenin in October in connection with it. Massage Milk wrote this (in a translation by ESWN):

Logically, Mikhail Romm should have sued CCTV's News Commentary Department led by Cui Yongyuan for butchering a great film such as "Lenin in October." It was disrespectful towards Lenin and it was disrespectful towards socialism. Do you Chen Kaige think that you are greater than Lenin?

In 2001, Lenin in October joined 1939's Lenin in 1918 as the target of satiric barbs from CCTV's news division. In the short film Splitting Up In October (分家在十月), the two classics are recast as the story of the retooling of the program Oriental Horizon and the establishment of a separate CCTV news department, as drawn from the memoirs of Chenhongnov, A TV Scoundrel in His Own Words.

Cui Yongyuan vs. Cuiyongyuanski

There's quite a bit of humor in the piece, even beyond the mere incongruity of seeing famous anchors and directors of CCTV programs given Russian-style names and paired with famous revolutionaries. Revolutionary slogans are skewered - "Shall we take the fourth-ring road of rationality, or the peaceful avenue of passion?" - and the characters get up to a good deal of bribery and lechery.

According to a summary that ran in the Fujian Economic Bulletin, the films were not intended to be made public:

[A worker] at CCTV, told the reporter that [Splitting Up in October] was a program left over from the annual Spring Festival party held by CCTV's news division. Everyone watched it at the party, and after the laughter was over that was it - it was just for fun. After the film came out, every employee was given a CD. I don't know who it was who later put it online. Since some people felt that this would harm the image of CCTV, the upper management quickly recalled the disks.

The short probably only appeared online due to the presence of another wildly popular pastiche produced at the end of 2001, The Year That Was (大史记). This film weaves together scenes from Ashes of Time, Farewell My Concubine, The Emperor and the Assassin (so Chen Kaige is not new at this sort of thing), Keep Cool, Devils at the Doorstep, Camel Xiangzi, Teahouse, and several other classic movies. There's very little plot to speak of, but many scenes are hilarious, and touch on the sorts of topics that don't make it into legitimate comedy shows. Bin Laden flying airplanes into China's tall buildings, Fаlungоng, the World Cup, and China's WTO obligations are all tied together. The film is essentially a warped look at the events of 2001 played against scenes from famous movies.

Much of the appeal of this piece stems from its inspired dialogue. Some of it is drawn from official statements, other portions are reworkings of the original scenes, and still others are completely made up. The short opens with a scene from Ashes of Time, with nonsensically inverted dialogue that has been quoted widely on the net:

The story is like this. A long, long time ago, one day, as a whish blew like the wind, there were five fingers where you couldn't see the dark night if you extended your hand.

I wrote you name on the sky, but it was carried away by the wind. I wrote your name on the beach, but the waves carried it away. So I wrote your name in every corner of the street. Damn! I was carried away by the police.

Since it became popular first, all subsequent re-dub projects are usually referred to as sequels to The Year That Was, though they have no relation to it. The producer of the film, a Beijing TV director named Lu Xiaobao, did not follow his first project with anything else, but that one project became one of the reasons Hu Ge started hacking away at films to produce Spring Transport Matrix and Steamed Bun.

The next short to become popular online, The Year That Was III: Grain (大史记3-粮食), was actually prepared in 1999, predating the other two films. It was the work of the CCTV-Oriental Horizon program Stories of Common People (百姓故事), but many of the same familiar names appear in both this and October. Adapted from the 1959 film Grain, which told the story of heroic peasants sneaking grain out from under the noses of the Japanese occupying army, it imagines a world in which an asteroid impact has flooded Beijing. The CCTV news division has found safety in Tibet, where the descendants of today's anchors and producers have to sneak their taped programs out from under the noses of ferocious upper management. The piece closes with a shot of a caravan "heading toward CNN."

There's a The Year That Was IV as well, but that is a different animal: one of the Spring Festival parties (from 2002) was uploaded in its entirety to the Internet. Presented with the same sensibility as the two CCTV-produced shorts, Oriental Red Horizon (东方红时空) is a CCTV-style variety show (like the one shown to the entire nation for the Spring Festival) that doesn't take itself too seriously. There are some funny bits, but mostly you get the sense that the program was intended for news division employees to have some fun seeing their colleagues performing in unusual roles. And there's the uncomfortable fact that a two-hour craptacular that mocks craptaculars is nonetheless a two-hour craptacular.

Also masquerading as The Year That Was IV is a re-edit of Hero done by Jiangsu Cable TV. Produced as a promotional film to show to potential advertisers in 2003, Be Heroes of the Market Together (共做市场真英雄) co-opts the What's Up, Tiger Lily formula for painfully unfunny results. Jet Li as Nameless is on a mission to convince Jiangsu's leading corporations to advertise on Jiangsu Cable. We're treated to exchanges like this:

Flying Snow: I predicted that you would use advertising and promotion to convince Sky. But here's the key: what kind of price advantages does your station have?
Nameless: Effective placement.
Flying Snow: Easy for you to say. Our mission here at Great Qin Group is to use scientific ad placement strategies, the lowest price predictions, and the largest market share.
Nameless: (voiceover) I had to prove to her that Jiangsu Cable's ads were the most direct and effective.
(Nameless spears a bamboo rod with his sword.)

Really, the most one can say about this short is that the dubbing is quite well-done.

So as not to end on this rather depressing note, we should mention a recent report that Lu Xiaobao and Hu Ge have expressed interest in working together on a new film. It probably won't be a re-dub production, since both Lu and Hu say that they are tired of the medium (and Hu also is a bit worried about the legal repercussions).

Lu's closing statement from The Year That Was is fairly apt, for both the Chen-Hu suit, as well as any other questionable online entertainment:

If there's anything disrespectful, then please watch it with one eye closed.

Danwei has uploaded the four shorts to YouTube for the convenience of readers who do not wish to navigate Baidu's MP3 search. Please note that the volume is rather high on most of these videos, and the Grain video has especially poor sound quality. The Year That Was. Splitting up in October. Grain. Hero. The Oriental Red Horizon is a several-hundred-megabyte file, so you'll have to pull that from Baidu yourselves.

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