Film Review: Comrades
Directed by Edward Wong
Review by Kye Leung
Synopsis: Comrades: A personal documentary about two men who took part in the violent socialist struggles of the mid-20th century. Yook Wong joined the Communist
Revolution that swept through China in 1949. A generation later, Alex Hing founded a group in San Francisco called the Red Guard, modeled after the communist youth group in China. In the end, the revolution didn't turn out the way anyone expected.
Comrades is the story of two men who never met each other except in director Edward Wong's imagination. Featuring interviews and historical footage, Wong weaves a story of two men who each tried to change the world they lived in. We meet the director's father. It is 1949 and China is unified as the People's Republic of China.
Ending a century of conflict, the people of China looked forward to peace and stability. The past one hundred years had been chaotic. Imperialist expansion and demand for new markets by capitalist nations in China led to two Opium Wars (1839, 1856). China's defeat by Britain, a small island nation, highlighted the ineptness of the feudal bureaucracy and the monarchy government. The humiliation suffered at the hands of European powers spurred rebellions in China, especially the Nien (1853-1868) and Taipings (1850-64). Mostly a peasant movement, the Taipings was led by a charismatic man who claimed to be the brother of Jesus and was brought to this world to rid the corrupt monarchy and the European imperialists. In 1900, another large peasant movement emerged, the Boxer Rebellion, also known as Yi Ho Tuan or I Wor Kuen. Sun Yat-sen, the father of modern Chinese republic, established a coalition government in 1911 known as the Kuomintang or Nationalist Party, effectively ending three hundred years of Manchu monarchy.
The various factions that comprised the Kuomintang splintered between the reactionary forces who were intent on preserving the feudal order and the monarchy, and progressive forces who wanted a democratic republic. Within the ranks of the Kuomintang were communists who were actively organizing the growing Chinese proletariat in urban cities and leading union strikes. After pacifying surrounding areas, the Kuomintang led by the conservative Chiang Kai-sek purged the communists from the party and attacked them in what is known as the Shanghai Massacre. Tens of thousands of leftist and communist sympathizers were killed. The sociologist Karl Marx taught, history is a struggle between classes. The communists saw themselves as successors to the Taipings and Boxers revolutions. As dialectical materialists, the communists believed that history is a contradiction between the forces of the ruling class and the exploited and oppressed. In China, the Koumingtang was revolutionary as an organization that overthrew feudalism in 1911, but later aligned themselves with the Chinese bourgeoisie, land-owners and foreign imperialism. Their antagonists, the Chinese Communist Party, organized the workers and peasants and thus set the stage for a civil war that lasted until 1949.
A recent high school graduate, Wong joins the People's Liberation Army. Deem untrustworthy because he has overseas relatives in Hong Kong, Wong is sent to the deserts of western China to serve the people. After seven years in a remote land, Wong yearns to go home and questions the leadership of the Party. The disasters of the Great Leap Forward left famine and poverty. Lying his way at the border, Wong runs away to Hong Kong, then a colony of Great Britain and eventually settles in the U.S.
On the other side of the world is Alex Hing. Hing was born in San Francisco, CA to working class parents. Wrapping wontons in the kitchen Hing smiles, "This is what happens in old age, sitting around making wontons. When I was your age I was loading bullets." As one of the founders of the Red Guard Party, Hing is a revolutionary who memorized Mao's red book and believed in making revolution in the U.S. The history of the Red Guards began in Leway, a hangout place which stood for Legitimate Ways. Harassed by the police and with limited opportunities, some of the youth from Leway organized themselves as the Red Guard Party, named after the Red Guards in China's Cultural Revolution. Influenced by the Black Panther Party, a Black revolutionary organization, the Red Guard Party shocked Chinatown. "We made it clear that we liked Mao," said Hing.
Actually, there is a story of Mao, the Black Panthers and the Red Guard Party. Tired of non-violent protests and feet dragging by the government on civil rights, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale formed the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense in Oakland, CA in 1966. They got their first guns from a Japanese American, Richard Aoki and patrolled the streets of Oakland against police brutality on Blacks. In order to raise money one of the first things the Panthers did were to sell Mao's little red book. Some of them couldn't even pronounce the name Mao Zedong but once they heard he was a revolutionary, they were down with Mao. The Panthers felt that Blacks were second class citizens living in an oppressive and racist society. They drafted a ten-point platform demanding freedom. Before the Red Guard Party was formed, some of the founding sisters dated Panther members. They invited Bobby Seale to come down for a talk and he encouraged the Chinatown youth to form the Red Guard Party. All the while this was going on in the U.S. the Cultural Revolution was happening in China and the Panthers and Red Guard Party studied Mao's writings and how to apply Mao Tse-Tung Thought to American politics.
However, the revolution didn't turn out the way both Wong and Hing expected. The failure of the Great Leap Forward and confusion over the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution disillusioned many in China. Wong wonders if the same fate would've happened to him had he stayed in China like his cousin who was attacked for having overseas relatives. In the U.S. the Red Guard Party battled the Kuomintang in Chinatown and later the U.S. government. Threatened by the revolutionary nature of the masses, the government launched a program named COINTELPRO, a counter intelligence program with orders to destroy, assassinate and discredit the movement. Under intense pressure, the Red Guard Party disbanded. Some members went underground and others joined another Asian revolutionary organization. [See the article History of the Red Guard Party republished in AAME. Ed.] Looking back, Wong doesn't regret spending his years in the PLA but now he thinks capitalism isn't that bad . American born Hing sums up his experiences a bit differently. He still believes that capitalism exploits people but the problem was that in his age, people saw socialism as the answer and it didn't work out the way they expected it would.
The film touches sensitive topic in the Chinese community, communism and the Cultural Revolution but credit should be given to director Edward Wong for giving a refreshing look at the meaning of revolution and its consequences. While the film may feel like a short 27 minutes and leaves the viewer with more questions at the end, it nonetheless is worthwhile to see and hear two men who participated in revolution.