Judge Bill Gibron discovered that, apparently, you might be able to make it with anyone, anyhow.
Who Knew That Communism Could Be So Funny?
Chairman Mao, the mythic Mao Zedong. The reason Nixon earned access to China and the man who moved his Asian nation away from Russia and into the modern world. Of course, there were some issues along the way, many caused by his own ambitions and aims, but when you consider the inherent illiteracy and indifference of his fellow countrymen, his missteps remain relatively easy to understand. But more than any other leader, Mao radicalized China in a way that would have lasting international effects. Today, the burgeoning superpower owes most of its pro-Capitalist components to a man who believed that supporting his people, not suppressing them, would give rise to contentment and strong governmental continuity—and if it kept him and his cronies in power, all the better. Still, for many, Mao remains the enemy, a crazed Communist taking a billion citizens to the brink of global confrontation. According to the documentary The Passion of the Mao, not only is he misunderstood, but he just might be a model for future autocrats to follow.
Foisting itself off on audiences under the guise of a smart, subversive Commie Party parody, The Passion of the Mao is actually a well-planned apology for the infamous Chinese leader. The link to Mel Gibson's filleted Jesus epic is specious at best, and when filmmaker Lee Feigon tosses in the occasional lifted riff, it sticks out like forty false pieces of silver. So comedy is one of the last entertainment vestiges you will find here. If, on the other hand, you want a rather detailed history of the accomplishments and philosophies of the noted world leader, this is a great place to start. In a kooky Classics Illustrated fashion, Feigon follows Mao's rise from student to businessman, failed radical to challenger of the entire Chinese government. In between, we get snippets from the infamous Little Red Book, glimpses of archival footage, Video Toaster-level animation, and enough artificial irreverence to hide a simple, singular truth. Feigon clearly likes what Mao accomplished for his country, dragging it out of its agrarian roots and into the twentieth century. The how and horrors within get relatively shortchanged, however.
Mao was an old man when he came to prominence among '60s counterculture intellectuals, his writings reminiscent of other Asian thinkers—sans the subtlety or abject eloquence. Passion takes us back to the days when the leader was a womanizing, power-hungry novice, his battles with Russia and his own people provoking a desire to usurp those determined to use control as a means of manipulating the populace. Mao's greatest achievement, and the facet this film mostly focuses on, was the so-called Cultural Revolution (meshed with the additional Great Leap Forward). These policies returned determination to the citizenry, using borderline democratic means within a communal setting to reduce poverty, increase education…and most importantly, limit opposition and resentment. Mao remains one of the few leaders who understood that a despot is never hated if he appears to be dictating for—not to—the masses. With their ability to raise crops, make money, and school their children, the peasant class clamored for the leader, supporting him throughout the roughest of Party purges.
In fact, the most amazing thing one learns from The Passion of the Mao is how resilient he was. It seems like, every time we turn around, there's another Red Army defeat, another internationally supported attempt to overthrow or undermine his influence. Additionally, Mao's rather sad familial situation gets some necessary scrutinizing. He cheated on his wives and mistresses, had several children die (either in infancy, or in the heat of battle), and even abandoned several offspring among the countryside when he and his current companion couldn't care for them. All the while, Feigon does his best Morgan Spurlock—sans onscreen appearances. The narration by Aaron Freeman is all pith and pomposity, the voiceover artist's sonorous tones never taking anything remotely seriously. Even his reading of Mao's curse word-laden passages comes across as hilariously haughty. Elsewhere, a few talking heads appear, providing personal perspective (and nothing but praise) for the man who remade China. The Passion of the Mao is a decent documentary, considering the amount of history is has to offer. But the satiric perspective never materializes, resulting in a lesson that's light on the laughs it proposes to provide.
From a technical standpoint, this basic DVD from Indie Pictures is decent, if not necessarily flawless. The 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen image is good, if a tad flat. The colors are clear and the details obvious, but there are moments of stock footage instability and Photoshop sloppiness throughout. Indeed, as a video-to-digital transfer, it's good if slightly underwhelming. Similarly, the Dolby Digital Stereo mix offers nothing but discernible dialogue and easily understood narration. The musical scoring is understated and uninteresting. Sadly, there are no bonus features offered, and in the case of a subject as controversial as Mao, a little outside perspective would have been nice. Still, for what's here, The Passion of the Mao succeeds. It's a minor movie at best, but within its artistic and historic aims, it does an effective job.
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