Morning Sun

Morning Sun, A Documentary Film | Film Reviews

Review Excerpts
Morning Sun is a compelling and exciting documentary film about the history of the Cultural Revolution in China that demonstrates the inseparable connection of political movements in the twentieth century to issues of spectacle, representation, and cinematic culture itself. Morning Sun narrates the development of revolutionary thinking in China from the mid-1960s to mid-1970s and its link to visual narratives. The film does not just use these images as "illustrations." Instead, the filmmakers deftly demonstrate the importance and power of images in advancing the revolutions of the twentieth century.

American Historical Association, 2004 John E. O'Connor Film Award

The creators of Morning Sun "make a huge contribution to our understanding of what was going on in the minds of those teenage Red Guards. They trace the impulse to rebel back to various pop-culture favourites... They show previously unseen documentary footage of Red Guards destroying 'feudal' relics shot by Zhao Likui. They interview people who have never spoken on the record before, such as Liu Shaoqi's widow and daughter and the Red Guard leader Luo Xiaohai. And they assemble all of this material with such intelligence and precision that they illuminate an entire period in modern Chinese history with a clarity never seen before."

Tony Rayns, Sight and Sound (Full Review)

Eastward to the World

The directors of Morning Sun "sift through the official truths and unofficial conjectures for this gripping, relentlessly tragic retelling of life in revolutionary times... Morning Sun's elegiac tone and bottom-up perspectives humanize events that are often described through faceless masses. Through key interviews and extended looks at the culture around the revolution (film, music, theater, fashion, etc.), one gets a taste of utopian mania."

Hua Hsu, Village Voice, October 22 - 28, 2003 (Full Review)

Morning Sun : The bizarre and colorful nightmare world of Chairman Mao's Cultural Revolution comes alive in an extraordinary new documentary. Smash the Old World!

At moments, watching the superb new documentary Morning Sun suggests what it might be like to see atrocities rendered as oil paintings on black velvet...It would be enough if Hinton, Barmé and Gordon had made a movie that is consistently lucid, one that supplies all the information you need at any given moment. They are also among the most humane of documentarians, never pushing their interviewees, allowing them the space to present themselves, extending them the empathy of understanding how easy it was to get caught up in Mao’s crusade. And they manage the trick of making their films aesthetically pleasing without blunting their force as historical, human or political documents. There’s a brilliant section here intercutting a scene from "The East Is Red" with the same incident dramatized in a propaganda film. It's the most concise expression of this film's sensibility -- the sense that real life, real history, has gone into hiding, and only representations can be compared.

Morning Sun ends abruptly, with a few lines of narration setting out the paradox Mao represents for China: He is an ever-present image who stands for past tyranny but also for the possibility of rebellion. Whether that rebellion will be for good or another outburst of the nightmare of the Cultural Revolution, the filmmakers cannot say. The story they are telling here is still in the process of being written. It's as good a sign as any of how absorbing Morning Sun is that the film's sudden ending makes you greedy for more, for the balance of discernment and empathy that is their gift to contemporary documentary filmmaking.

Charles Taylor,, Oct. 22, 2003 (Full Review)

Morning Sun's "coherent use of visual material provides a fresh and convincing examination of the dynamics that paved the way for the Cultural Revolution.

"Morning Sun's major contribution consists in focusing on contemporary images and foregrounding their importance in molding the collective mindset... Clips from The East Is Red and other contemporary films punctuate the initial exuberance and multiple disenchantments of the Red Guard recounted by prominent members of the generation... Their personal anecdotes capture the absurdity of the Cultural Revolution better than dry accounts... The combination of oral history and visual materials provides a palpable exposition of revolutionary culture.

"Morning Sun, together with the superb accompanying website (, are welcome teaching tools. High school, college, and graduate students alike stand to gain insights into the dissonances of the culture of revolution and the dilemmas of the Red Guard generation."

Yomi Braester, American Historical Review, June 2004 (Full Review)

'Sun' An Illuminating Look at China's Dark Time (3 1/2 out of 4 stars)

Morning Sun "is the first film to stand back and take a good, hard look at the [Cultural Revolution] era... an astonishing archival mix of propaganda and news footage, as well as firsthand accounts of those who were there...

"Morning Sun gives us voices from across the spectrum, including one of the founders of the Red Guards, his face in shadow and his words filled with regret. We hear from the brother of a student newspaper editor who was executed when the Cultural Revolution started consuming its critics. The widow and daughter of scapegoated President Liu Shaoqi are interviewed; so are Li Rui, a Communist Party veteran who was exiled by the Red Guards, and his daughter Li Nanyang. The latter speaks of her rejection of her father -- of her being too rigid to even call him 'dad' -- and how saying that word ultimately helped break her doctrinal fever.

"Perhaps the most telling quote -- the one that underscores why this upheaval was different from all the others of its time -- comes from former student Zhu Danian. 'Why did we fight for the right to make revolution and not some other right?' he asks. 'Because there were no other rights.'"

Ty Burr, Boston Globe, 10/17/2003 (Full Review)

The Loss of Relationships Under Mao's Rough Revolutionary Hand

The documentary "Morning Sun" does a thoughtful job of streamlining the bloody realities - both literal and psychological - of China's Cultural Revolution into roughly two hours of film. The movie begins with clips from a 1964 "musical extravaganza" - as the narrator, Margot Adler, puts it - called "The East Is Red." "In dark, old China, the earth was dark, the sky was dark," we hear in a scene from "The East Is Red," and we see a production that looks like a Chinese high school combination of "The Good Earth" and "Porgy and Bess." "The East Is Red," photographed in volcanic color, splashes its propaganda in terms so simple that the scenes become almost Brechtian; more specifically, it's a crude Minnelli musical essentially produced by Mao, the Arthur Freed of Communism.

The pieces of this musical shown in "Morning Sun" are so fulsomely straightforward that being denied a chance to see it in its entirety feels like a form of deprivation. That is, until the directors - Carma Hinton, Geremie R. Barmé and Richard Gordon - focus on the adults who were indoctrinated under the firm, unambiguous hand of Mao. Then deprivation is defined in truly horrific terms. One describes the Revolution in grimly elegant fashion: "It was an age ruled by both the poet and the executioner; poets scattered roses everywhere, while the executioner cast a long shadow of terror."

One particularly transfixing interview comes from a former Red Guard member whose features are obscured by shadow; his recollections of violence inflicted in Mao's name are darkened by shame. He, like many others, can never quite forgive himself for being sucked into the stream of propaganda.

Elvis Mitchell, The New York Times, Oct. 22, 2003 (Full Review)

The Cultural Revolution is "vividly recalled in this illuminating documentary, which looks at a period of sweeping change, with special attention to the casualties: the ostracized 'bourgeois' families, the publicly beaten teachers, the exiles banished to remote provinces, the victims of mass execution...The filmmakers (who also gave us the Tiananmen Square documentary The Gate of Heavenly Peace) have done an admirably thorough job of rounding up the period's key survivors, from high party officials who suddenly found themselves out of favor to founding members of the radical student-activist Red Guard group. Accompanied by rare, fascinating footage from newsreels, propaganda films and old documentaries, these talking heads tell a story of ideals that hardened into unbending ideologies, passions that mutated into violent urges, and loyalties that ran zealously rampant. Most of all, this film, expertly knit together by documentarians who are not just learned historians but also born storytellers, re-created the irresistible momentum of a movement that became a true revolution of awesome, often terrible scope."

Michael Sauter, Time Out New York, Oct. 23-30, 2003 (Full Review)

This fascinating and comprehensive analysis of the Chinese Cultural Revolution is enlivened by extraordinary archive footage and compelling testimony from key individuals involved in one of the last century's most extreme manifestations of revolutionary fundamentalism... [Morning Sun] is always telling on the processes by which legitimate demands, extreme propaganda and, most importantly, overwhelming peer pressures conspire to destroy families and generational relations, finally turning a whole society against itself.

Gareth Evans, Time Out UK, July 23-30, 2003 (Full Review)

Compelling and illuminating... Astounding interviews with witnesses to history. Rare documentary footage (both stage-managed propaganda events and newsreel reportage) and the 'proletariat art' of party-approved films show the gap between the fantasy and reality of Mao's China, but it's the experiences of those swept up in and swept away by the runaway revolution that illuminate the forces behind the crusades and purges.

Seattle Post-Intelligencer, June 6, 2003 (Full Review)

By deftly juxtaposing first-person accounts, archival documentary footage, and scenes from once popular movies, Morning Sun weaves a dense tapestry that is, at once, particular to its time and place, and universal. The documentary's exploration of the sources of revolutionary conviction and the heady appeal of utopian promises reverberates far beyond China's borders. Having culled and collated a vast quantity of footage, the film's directors achieve a cinematic pluralism that ably elucidates the reciprocity between cultural myth making and political ideology. In its presentation of history as a nexus of recorded events, personal recollections, and cultural artifacts, Morning Sun is a suitably manifold rumination on one of the twentieth century's most momentous upheavals.

Julie Levinson, Art New England, February/March 2004 (Full Review)

Morning Sun is a social history of the Cultural Revolution. It relies on the words of the historical actors to explain the psychology of revolution… Viewers are treated to a vibrant personal history, one from which they can gain a greater understanding of post-Communist Revolution China… Going well beyond the familiar cast of talking heads, the so-called experts in the field, the producers of Morning Sun have allowed the historical actors to tell their own stories… These interviews are sincere and leave a lasting impression.

Historical images complement the interviews and provide historical background… The producers have utilized a fresh set of historical images that go beyond what have become the standard post-Communist Revolution photo and film montage.

Morning Sun is a welcome addition to the classroom because of its in-depth analysis of the Cultural Revolution and surrounding events… An additional feature that makes this film especially student/classroom-friendly is its companion Web site that contains a host of additional material.

David G. Wittner, Asian Educational Media Service, News and Reviews,
Vol. 7, No. 3, Fall 2004, pp. 1-3 (Full Review)

Bravo for Morning Sun, a densely packed documentary that is about as comprehensive a look at the Cultural Revolution as can be imagined in a two-hour work.

G. Allen Johnson, San Francisco Chronicle, April 2, 2004 (Full Review)

A stunning new documentary film.

Adam Piore, Newsweek, Nov. 10, 2003 (Full Review)

A powerful, ambitious and absorbing film about China's least-understood revolutionary movement.

Marilyn Young, Professor of History, New York University

Morning Sun is "not just one of the best studies of Maoism but also a strong contender for the award of most significant documentary about contemporary history."

Nick Fraser, BBC

Morning Sun provides "an unprecedented look inside China's cultural revolution. The filmmakers, who have a lifelong relationship with China, have recovered footage thought to be lost, found period films and convinced key interview subjects to talk. It's a rich historical tale, with the filmmakers as interpreters of an experience even the subjects can sometimes not quite believe really happened."

Pat Aufderheide, International Documentary, Nov. 2003 (Full Review)

Morning Sun mixes fascinating, archival-based history — including some astounding footage of Maoist operatic spectacle, student re-enactments of The Long March, and rare footage of Mao speaking at the Ninth Party Congress in 1969 — with ruefully revealing interviews with people who were both persecuted and persecutors... Morning Sun is remarkably measured in its approach, aiming not to condemn the actions of the Red Guard — who, to a person, condemn themselves anyway — but to understand the mechanisms whereby idealism turns into totalitarianism. A valuable contribution not only to the understanding of recent Chinese history, but to the tumult of a globally unsettled age.

Geoff Pevere, Toronto Star, Nov. 12, 2003 (Full Review)

Absorbing look at China's Cultural Revolution focuses on individuals and families that came of age during the controversial, brutal period. ... Valuable archival footage as well as an intriguing look at the rarely discussed "cultural" artifacts — music, plays, and rhetoric — of the Revolution.

Bilge Ebiri and Logan Hill, New York Magazine, Oct. 20, 2003 (Full Review)

To this day, the eccentric cruelty of [Mao Zedong's] regime remains fogged over by a lingering haze of nostalgic Marxist mythology. So it's an eye-opening experience to see Morning Sun, a documentary that chronicles China's descent into the stony-eyed cult of purity and violence known as the Cultural Revolution.

Using newsreel footage, clips of artistic propaganda, and interviews with survivors, the movie draws us into the annihilating fervor of an era in which purge followed upon purge, in escalating waves of terror and control... It's chilling and enraging to take in this portrait of revolution gone mad.

Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly, Nov. 5, 2003 (Full Review)

Morning Sun is a timely look back at the so-called Cultural Revolution... Directed by the team that wrought emotionally powerful The Gate of Heavenly Peace (1995), about the 1989 Tiananmen demonstration, docu is a cooler but admirably balanced production.

Derek Elley, Variety, March 27, 2003 (Full Review)

Morning Sun "fashions a compelling arc via the roller-coaster experience of its idealistic teenagers... The directors unspool an awesome collection of vintage propaganda, from footage of the massive performance The East Is Red to placards and radio speeches... Morning Sun's interviewees provide a more nuanced (and nightmarish) picture of thinking participants motivated by romantic idealism, heady power, and revenge."

Terri Sutton, City Pages (Minneapolis/St. Paul), Jan. 28, 2004 (Full Review)

Morning Sun blends interviews with participants, eyewitnesses and victims with footage and commentary that give insights to the background scenery of the Cultural Revolution. ...[T]he directors of Morning Sun instead of so much feeding us details of different turns of events set upon trying to convey the mindset of those young people seen as that beginning of a bright new day the title speaks of.

Charlotte Sjöholm, "The Berlinale 2003, take 1,"
Film International
, March 2003 (Full Review)

Red Dawn: Mao Spins the Cultural Revolution

'You young people are like the morning sun,' Mao said, playing to the egos of high-schoolers and college kids. 'Our hope is pinned on you.' When he appeared among them in Tiananmen Square 1964, walking through the youthful crowds, they giggled and screamed as if it were the Beatles at Shea Stadium. He took their side when they rebelled against their teachers and administrators, saying how he disapproved of pop quizzes and how, if an instructor were boring, he too would sleep in class! What a great guy, Chairman Mao! When anti-authority students formed what they called 'Red Guard' units, he allowed it. And when the Red Guards turned violent, he approved. Soon there were Red Guard groups all over Beijing, and with Little Red Books clutched in hand, they were chomping at the bit to do Mao's bidding.

Heart-wrenching... Become about a thousand times better informed: see Morning Sun.

Gerald Peary, Boston Phoenix, October 17 - 23, 2003 (Full Review)

[I]nformative and richly illustrated documentary surveys China's Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution... Replete with powerful first-person accounts from various sectors of Chinese society, the film brilliantly mixes footage of the Revolution's Commie-kitsch propaganda with the reality of contemporary photographs.

Ken Fox,, October 2003 (Full Review)

The documentary Morning Sun takes a gripping look at Mao's Cultural Revolution, which began about 1964 to create 'a utopian, classless society.'... Astonishing newsreel footage, propaganda films and vintage photos.

V.A. Musetto, New York Post, October 22, 2003 (Full Review)

In Morning Sun, [the filmmakers] tell the dizzying story of revolution and counter-revolution in Mao Zedong's China. Through narration, archival footage of Communist Party congresses and newsreels, we learn the high points of the Cultural Revolution and see many of the players... Interviews with Red Guard founders and members, a Chinese artist, Mao’s former secretary and relatives of "counterrevolutionaries" humanize the historical events depicted in the film.

Maria Garcia, Film Journal International, Oct. 27, 2003 (Full Review)

Morning Sun "does a wonderful job of recreating the aura of the [Cultural Revolution]. When students in Paris and California were smoking pot and talking about a revolution, the teenagers in Beijing were -- at least in their minds -- actually making one."

Alistair Highet, Hartford Advocate, March 18, 2004 (Full Review)

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