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A Faded Pastime Flickers to Life Again in Rural China

Times Staff Writer

The movie starts when the day becomes night. Real life continues to drift by. Herds of water buffalo. Men balancing buckets of water across their shoulders. Villagers carrying torches to guide their way home.

They march right through this ephemeral theater amid jagged mountains and rice paddies, throwing black shadows on a white canvas screen tied to the door of a barn.

About a generation ago, this was how most Chinese watched movies: under the stars, and mostly for free. Now a group of six retired men is trying to revive this Maoist-era tradition. Strapping an old projector and rusty cases of film reels on the back of a motorbike, they’ve been traveling rugged country roads to bring the magic of cinema to remote villages untouched by the marvels of the big screen.

“When I was little, there used to be outdoor movies all the time,” said Zhou Xiulian, 39, who was so excited to see the movie caravan enter the nearby village of Gutong that she didn’t care what they’d be showing (on this night, a documentary about the late Chairman Mao Tse-tung). “We like everything. It’s so rare these days for us to see any movie at all.”

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This year is the 100th anniversary of the birth of Chinese cinema. In 1905, the story goes, China’s first homemade silent movie was born in a Beijing photo studio. By the 1930s, the cosmopolitan city of Shanghai had become known as China’s Hollywood.

But it was communism that gave Chinese motion pictures a new purpose. The Communist Party relied on films to deliver mass entertainment as well as political propaganda. Film brigades became part of the landscape.

Now that China has switched to a bustling market economy, even in the countryside people can watch grainy television soap operas and pop in a pirated DVD for less than a dollar. Many old cinemas have shuttered their doors. Outdoor theaters are practically unheard of.

“I haven’t been to the movies since I was dating my wife,” said Sun Jian, 45, an official in Huaxi, a city here in the south-central province of Guizhou with 330,000 residents and only one cinema -- and even that is mostly used as a conference hall. “For peasants, it’s next to impossible. They would need to travel from the village to the city and spend money they don’t have.”

Enter the all-senior movie caravan. Since presenting the first free film three years ago for nearly 2,000 people in a town square, the road show has proved a hit beyond expectation.

“China has 900 million peasants, and they need spiritual nourishment,” said Rao Changdong, 62, one of the founders of the movie caravan, whose volunteers fund the project almost entirely out of their own pockets. “VCDs and DVDs are fine, but they are limited to the small family and small screen. Movies are better because it’s more about community interaction and the big family.”

The leading men of the caravan met three years ago when one of them had an idea.

Li Delong, 71, had just retired from his job as a manager at a government bank. The grandfather of four receives a pension of about $250 a month. That makes him a rich man in Huaxi, where the average person makes a little more than that in a year.

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But Li grew up a poor farm boy and wanted to do something nice for the folks back home. He loved movies and thought how great it would be if he could show them in the countryside. But Li knew nothing about the technical aspects of showing a movie.

Then he ran into Rao.

When Rao was a kid, his mother stored a film projector for the village cultural center in their house. He fiddled with it and taught himself how to run it. When there was an opening for a projectionist in the film brigade at his commune, he got the job even though he was just 14.

At age 22, he and a few buddies embarked on a cinematic long march. Pushing a flatbed wheelbarrow loaded with their film gear, they walked for 70 days straight, resting only to show movies to peasants along the way. They trekked all the way to Mao’s birthplace, where they showed a movie and had their pictures taken with the Great Helmsman’s nephews.

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Just thinking about the crazy old days tickles the lifelong film buff. The idea that someone else his age wanted to re-create the journey of his youth, albeit on a much more modest scale, was irresistible.

The two men recruited Liu Jingmin, 68, a former party boss with government connections, to help fast-track the permits and cut the red tape required to organize mass movie-watching events.

They also brought on Yu Huande, 56, a retired factory worker and member of a seniors motorcycle club. His relative youth and familiarity with the local landscape helps them navigate the hilly terrain and dirt roads that form the passage to most rural communities -- and his motorbike comes in handy to carry the film.

But they needed a car to ferry the rest of the crew. So Zhang Xiang, a 65-year-old retired teacher, volunteered his son-in-law’s van. When that’s not available, Rao borrows his son’s tiny green hatchback. Like teenagers on a road trip, they always fill the bumpy drive with hearty talk and laughter.

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Adding to the group’s sense of nostalgia and expertise is Li Zhongming, 65, a retired union worker who was with Rao on his long march 40 years ago.

Once, the headlights went out on the way to a screening. To make sure the show went on, the men continued driving and used a flashlight to guide their way.

Sometimes it rains during a screening. But they keep the reels turning, because the audience refuses to leave.

Over the last three years, they have presented more than 300 shows in 32 villages in Guizhou province and offered special events in a police academy, drug rehab center, army base and elementary schools.

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Officials support them because they also show educational documentaries on request. Subjects include how to plant cash crops such as peach, pear and plum trees. Also popular is information on birth control and crime and drug prevention.

The caravan gets its films from movie studios that went bankrupt. When executives hear that the retirees show outdoor movies for free, they usually cut them a steep discount or give the movies away.

Not that there’s any other use for these crusty relics. Titles such as “Lenin in 1918,” “Tunnel Warfare” and “Hero’s Tiger Guts” were once blockbusters. Now they’re lucky to get airtime during national holidays or patriotic campaigns.

But for rural communities, these mostly black-and-white flicks provide a much-appreciated nightlife. In fact, residents often give the film caravan a hero’s welcome at the village entrance with song and dance, even homemade plum wine. On special occasions, especially on bitingly cold winter nights, villagers prepare hotpots of spicy pepper stew and gather near coal stoves to enjoy the show.

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Then they watch these grandfather figures transform a corner of their familiar town into a place of magic.

After picking the largest open space in Baituo, a village of 1,100 people, mostly ethnic Miao, the volunteers get to work.

Rao unfolds a wooden tripod with splintered legs that look like old crutches. He props up “JFK 168,” the caravan’s Chinese-made 16-millimeter projector shaped like a small sewing machine. It was a recent gift from the local government, a welcome addition to the only projector they had. They still use that 30-year-old antique, which Rao fixed up and treats like his baby.

Next they look for electricity. A villager who lives up the hill volunteers the outlet in his house. Somebody hikes up with the black cord.

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Meanwhile, the young village chief climbs to the top of the barn, helping the septuagenarian Li to drape the white canvas over its open door.

With a cigarette always between his fingers and a tiny thermos of hot tea in his pocket, Rao yells out to make sure the speakers are propped up right on the ladder next to the big screen.

Yu opens the metal case holding the reel and checks the film against the fast-fading twilight. Something snaps. He conducts emergency surgery with a nail clipper and clear tape.

The single naked bulb on top of the projector comes on.

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Then Rao hears the loud sound of his own scratchy voice bounce back from the speaker.

The night’s feature attraction is a black-and-white movie from the 1960s about a communist James Bond figure.

When gunshots echo around the night sky, a boy darts out of the dark fields and dashes toward the flashing screen, yelling, “War! War!”


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