A Life in Six Chapters
A Life in Six Chapters presents a visual portrait of Xiao Jun (1907-1988), a left-wing Chinese writer who befriended the literary figure Lu Xun and the political giant Mao Zedong. The film spans more than 60 years from the 1920s to the 1980s, taking a tour of China’s literary scene, and introducing renowned writers like Lu Xun, Xiao Hong, Hu Feng, Ding Ling, Nie Gannu, Ai Qing, Lao She, and more. Xiao Jun’s romances and struggles are set against the backdrop of twentieth century China, including the 14-year Sino-Japanese War, the Communist rectification campaigns, post-1949 political movements, the chaotic years of the Cultural Revolution, and, finally, the early years of the country’s opening-up.
A disciple of Lu Xun, Xiao Jun tried throughout his life to hold on to his mentor’s spirit of intellectual autonomy free from political influence. Although he befriended some of the CCP’s top leaders, from Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai to Chen Yun and Peng Zhen, he never joined the party. Even a campaign of criticism against him could not persuade him and he is remembered as one of a few Chinese writers who survived without bending to politics.
Producer: Xiao Dazhong, Wilfried B. Lu
Writer/Director/Editor: S. Louisa Wei
Assistant Director/Assistant Editor: Anna W. Li
Art Direction: Lu Xinyang
Animation: Wei-fan Chang
Composer: Robert Ellis-Geiger
Recordist/Sound Effect: Mary Y. Chen
Production Manager: Wilfried B. Lu
Consultant: Xiao Yan, Xiao Yu, Xiao Yun, Yuan Quan
Running Time: 96 minutes
Screening Formats: DCP, DVD, MOV
World Distribution: Eagle Wind Vision Ltd.
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See A Life in Six Chapters at IMDB
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When I started this journey, I was searching for a hero with the strength and the courage to be steadfast and devoted, even amidst war, chaos, and betrayal. In the end, I found not one, but many– brave souls that never wavered, even in darkest hours.
by S. Louisa Wei
David Der-wei Wang, Harvard University
A Life in Six Chapters offers a heartrending view of Xiao Jun’s life story: his literary passion, romantic pursuit, revolutionary adventure, and most importantly, his courage and tenacity to survive the harshest trials of modern Chinese history. This beautifully made movie is a must-see for anyone interested in literature and revolution.
Nicole Huang, Hong Kong University
In A Life in Six Chapters, documentary filmmaker Louisa Wei chronicles the life and works of a charismatic modern literary figure: Xiao Jun. She weaves his own accounts with recollections of his family members and close associates and places a richly layered personal narrative against monumental events that punctuated China’s long and violent twentieth century. What emerges from this visual tapestry is a distinctive, complex, and endearing voice that speaks passionately of roots and journeys, of war and revolution, and of sorrow and permanent loss. The film as a literary biography also serves as an index to the entangled destinies of many other writers and intellectuals of Xiao Jun’s time. The film continues Wei’s long-time effort to preserve, reconstruct, and memorialize individual voices against the powerful forces that constantly threatened to render them silent. A tour de force!
Liu Jianmei, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology
A Life of Six Chapters is an impressive and powerful film that shows how difficult it is for a resolute Chinese intellectual to maintain his dignity, independence, and courage under the harsh political environment. By using Xiao Jun’s own genuine narrative voice, Louisa Wei succeeds in delineating this remarkable left-wing writer’s romantic and family stories, his literary career, and his stunning “behavior language” in various disturbing political campaigns. This documentary film has made a significant contribution to the field of modern Chinese literary studies by unraveling the intriguing interplays between politics and literature, individual and collective in the complex dynamics of modern China.
Sebastian Veg, School of Advanced Studies in Social Science(EHESS), Paris
“A Life in Six chapters” is Louisa Wei’s latest documentary, devoted to the writer Xiao Jun. It can be seen as part of a series of works beginning with “Storm under the Sun” on the Hu Feng Affair, and including documentaries on Wang Shiwei, the cultural critic who became one of the first intellectuals to be purged by Mao in the Yan’an period, and the writer Xiao Hong, who after a short marriage to Xiao Jun, eloped to Hong Kong, where she died a tragically early death.
Xiao Jun was an eternal maverick, who never became a formal member of the CCP, despite working for many years in its cultural orbit as a writer and journalist. Louisa Wei’s film brings him back to life using extensive autobiographical audio recordings he made in the early 1980s, as well as a series of exceptional interviews with his family members, friends, colleagues, and other witnesses of the times. The great events experienced by Xiao’s generation feature prominently in the film: the Japanese occupation of Manchuria in 1931, the death of Lu Xun in 1936, the idealistic promises of the CCP base in Yan’an, so often betrayed in reality, Mao’s proclamation of the PRC in 1949, the purges of intellectuals in the 1950s and the Cultural Revolution, marked by red guard violence and suicides of prominent writers like Lao She. All are depicted in vivid colors through the testimony of witnesses like Lu Xun’s son Zhou Haiying or Jia Zhifang, a victim of the Anti-Rightist purges.
As the ideals of a generation were shattered time and again by party politics and violent struggle, Xiao Jun remains an eternal optimist, unwilling to dwell on past wrongs or tragic episodes, like the loss of his daughter in the Cultural Revolution. The film effectively uses archival images and carefully selected music from each era to situate Xiao’s story against the great tapestry of history. This moving film will be of great interest to audiences concerned with China’s modern history, as well as the complex negotiations between intellectuals and politics.
Charles A. Laughlin, University of Virginia
Louisa Wei’s documentaries are not only thorough scholarly studies of modern Chinese cultural history (including the history of Chinese culture’s cosmopolitan dissemination throughout the world), but also what Shen Congwen would have called “history with feeling.” Wei’s combination of interviews with scholars, relatives, and acquaintances of her subjects with archival footage, music, animation, and paintings/drawings, in her film on the life of Chinese author Xiao Jun, becomes a unique mode of cultural narration, a genre of cultural discourse, that is Wei’s own. In this, it shares important characteristics with the best of Chinese documentary filmmaking.
For those familiar with the cast of characters in modern Chinese culture, from Lu Xun to Ding Ling, Xiao Hong, Hu Feng, Duanmu Hongliang, the stories Wei tells are enriching and astonishing. Without particularly emphasizing gender, Wei also demonstrates much better than most existing academic accounts the extraordinary importance of women in the emergence of modern Chinese literary culture, not only as creators, but as mothers, wives, daughters, and sisters.
I have no way of imagining what someone unacquainted with modern Chinese culture would make of this film, but I can say that if I had seen this as a college student interested in China, it certainly would have enhanced this interest, as well as given me more of an “insider’s view” than most existing English-language published scholarship could.
Michel Hockx, University of Notre Dame
Louisa S. Wei’s A Life in Six Chapters provides a moving biographical account of the life of Xiao Jun, a flamboyant Chinese writer who lived through wars, occupations, and revolutions, who wrote passionately about the tribulations of the lower classes, who supported and even befriended Mao Zedong but ended up being a frequent victim of Mao’s mass movements, and who emerged in his later years as a respected chronicler of the tumultuous times he witnessed. This documentary uses an impressive amount of archival material, ranging from rarely seen historical footage to sound recordings of Xiao Jun’s lectures about his life, and matches it with records of valuable interviews with Xiao Jun’s contemporaries, as well as with scholars of modern Chinese literature. Xiao Jun’s remarkable story, and that of his family, friends, and comrades, illustrates the passion as well as the suffering of those left-wing writers and critics who threw in their lot with the Communist Party and, despite everything, remained loyal to its ideals.
Frank T. Ye, University of South Carolina
The scale of A Life in Six Chapters is quite remarkable. It describes the joys and sorrows of Xiao Jun and Xiao Hong—one of the most famous literary couples of the 1930s. The film’s title echoes that of Shen Fu’s novel Six Chapters of a Floating Life, but its scope extends to nearly half of China’s modern literary figures, including Lu Xun, Ding Ling, Hu Feng, Nie Gangnu, Lu Ying, Ai Qing, Guo Moruo, Lao She, and others. At the same time, the film depicts life amidst the Sino-Japanese War, the Yenan Rectification Campaign, and later cultural and literary purges.
The film narrative spans more than half a century and features 25 interviewees. If not handled well, the audience would be confused; hence, dividing the film into six “seasons” is wise, similar to the episodic arrangement of both Chinese opera and Western drama. “Spring” focuses on Xiao Jun’s romance with Xiao Hong. “Summer” features Wang Defen, whom he married and spent half a century with. “Autumn” documents Xiao Jun’s friendships in Yenan with Ding Ling, Ai Qing, and others. “Winter” is about the tragic experiences of his family and writer-friends and the surrounding atmosphere of society. Although complex, the film presents a clear and logical analysis. Each chapter has its own theme, backstory, and narrative arc, linked by Xiao Jun’s voice-over.
A Life in Six Chapters is remarkable in terms of its material, rhythm, voice-over, cinematography, illustrations, and music. The director strives to maintain the objectivity of the documentary. The ups and downs Xiao Jun experienced were closely related to his time, but the film does not pass judgment on history, nor does it overly criticize historical figures. Rather than presenting a running series of accounts, the director hands judgment to the film’s characters. For instance, the film gives deserved space to lesser-known authors such as Lv Ying, who demonstrated courage in defending righteousness at the moment of life and death.
As Xiao Jun once wrote, “If only it were possible to become rain for the world, as the cloud with its lightness I would not complain.” Chinese literati have never lacked the spirit of righteousness; this is why Xiao Jun’s story can touch several generations.
Nagahori Yuuzou, Honorary Professor, Keio University, Japan
This documentary is an excellent work about the writer Xiao Jun. In addition to Xiao Jun, Xiao Hong, Hu Feng, and Wang Shiwei, the film presents numerous literary talents and followers Lu Xun. Many Chinese and foreign researchers active in the field of literature and history appear in the film, and that alone is exciting. Nevertheless, the most important pillars that hold up the historical sky of this work are Mao Zedong and Lu Xun.
The critical campaigns against individuals in New China were, to a large extent, aimed at establishing Mao Zedong’s cult of personality. In literary and art circles, the late Lu Xun was interpreted by Mao for his own political purpose. Meanwhile, Xiao Jun, Hu Feng, and Wang Shiwei, all of whom embodied Lu Xun’s analytical spirit, were persecuted or killed.
It was against all odds that Xiao Jun survived the Cultural Revolution. In spite of his personal exchanges with Mao and his speech during the Yenan Forum, Xiao Jun never conformed to Mao’s rectification. Thus, the campaign against him in New China was only natural. I believe he survived by maintaining his mental balance. His recollection of his ex-wife Xiao Hong is also moving. Flowing throughout the film, Xiao Jun’s voice reminds us how he fought against the forces of evil (including Japan’s invasion of China). He may have been humbled by life, but his spirit was never defeated. The clarity of his thoughts shines through the film, making it emotionally impactful.
What Xiao Jun, Hu Feng, Wang Shiwei, and others had in common was called “uprightness.” As Liu Zaifu points out towards the end of the film, their honesty and frankness are what we need more than anything else when confronted with irrationality and dictatorships. I learned this important lesson from this film.
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