Written by: Dieter Waumans on December 8th, 2006
Theatrical Release Dates: China, 1949
Film Studio: Northeast Film Studio
Director: Yin Ming
Writers: Yin Ming
Cast: Yao Xiangli, Zhang Ping, Lu Ban
DVD Distributor: Guangzhou Xin Sheng Culture Spread
DVD Release Date: June 1st 2006
Region Coding: R0 NTSC (China)
Audio: Mandarin (Dolby Digital 5.1)
Subtitles: Traditional Chinese, Simplified Chinese, English
Discs: 1 x DVD5
Features: Chapter selection (6 chapters)
Invisible Battlefront (listed by CnMDB as Invisible Battleline) is an interesting propaganda movie made by the Northeast Film Studio and screened in 1949, the year that the People’s Republic of China was officially proclaimed by Mao Zedong. The movie is a spy thriller spiced with an unhealthy amount of Maoist propaganda. Personally, I found it a very interesting movie to watch, but it should be said that to fully enjoy this film, you need some background information about the methods the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) introduced to create peace and harmony amongst the people. A good book I can recommend is Robert Jay Lifton’s Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of Brainwashing in China.
This book is an interesting study of the effects of the Communist Chinese re-education program on Westerners and Chinese. American soldiers taken prisoner during the Korean War were forcefully subjected to these re-education programs and usually returned home as completely devastated psychological wrecks. Brainwashing was coined after hearing the horror stories from these POW (derived from the CPP terminology for these thought reform programs, 洗脑, to wash the brain).
The movie begins by quoting Chairman Mao: “After annihilating the armed enemies, the unarmed enemies still exist. They may give us a cut-throat fight, we should never make light of them.” This highly enlightening quote forms the backbone of the story.
The Kuomintang (KMT) is loosing ground in mainland China. Their armies are retreating but they still have spies operating in CCP-controlled area. One of them is Li Tianmin. He’s a local coordinator but is soon caught thanks to Communist intelligence. As the story proceeds, Li’s spy circle is exposed by the Communists, but this is not always very easy. Li refuses to cooperate and his fellow spies efficiently remove all traces leading to their activities. However, KMT spy Xiao Cui is troubled by her conscience. Working in a militarily important rubber factory, she feels like a traitor for giving important production information to KMT informants. On the other hand, she fears the punishment by the CCP for being a KMT spy. But eventually, Xiao Cui decides to confess her spy identity to the Communists and agrees to help them to expose the other KMT spies. It doesn’t take long before the whole spy ring has been rounded up by the Communists, and Li is confronted with the arrested KMT undercover agents. Li is completely on his own now. All members of his spy ring have now embraced the CCP’s ideals and confessed how wrong they were by working for the KMT. But Li refuses to cooperate. Consequently, he has to suffer the punishment given by the People while the others go out free (i.e. re-educated and reborn).
This is yet another fine example of CCP propaganda from the Mao-era. This spy thriller is not exactly a James Bond type of action movie, but the cinematography is quite good. There are a few interesting facts, for instance the KMT spies always go dressed in Western clothing (except for Xiao Cui, who is dressed like the typical masculinised Chinese revolutionary female). Also, the KMT agents like the Western lifestyle: they drink wine in fancy restaurants and smoke pipe and cigars, in contrast with cigarettes for the Revolutionaries. Furthermore, they are cruel, while the CCP is merciful (for those who follow their ideology). Surprisingly, there is only one minor reference to the USA.
As mentioned, knowledge of the CPP re-education program techniques will greatly help you to enjoy this piece of mental masturbation. Taken into consideration that this movie was released in 1949, I had the impression that it was an invitation of the CCP to all those who opposed them, to stop their resistance and join the Revolution. Secondly, the CCP wants to show the people that it is good of full intentions. At that time, many Chinese were confused after the many years of civil unrest and distrusted politics. The CCP was determined to create the peace and harmony the people sought for. Lifton recounts some of the dramatic consequences this had for some.
The transfer is presented in 4:3, which seems to be the original AR. The image is soft and clearly shows contrast boosting. Furthermore, there are plenty of scratches and speckles, but after a few minutes of watching the movie, you may appreciate the special atmosphere they create. The video is encoded as NTSC; the image has not been transferred progressively.
As with other Chinese DVDs from this genre, this movie is plagued by the appearance of the distributor’s logo on the screen. This time, it’s not the suspiciously commie-red circles anymore that make you wonder whether this Chinese DVD authoring studio has ever watched a single DVD not produced by their own studio. At three instances during the movie, we can enjoy a tasteless XinSheng-logo. The coloured logo on the black/white movie background guarantees you won’t miss it. Look at the screenshots for a closer inspection of the visual quality.
The Mandarin audio track is in Dolby Digital 5.1. Generally speaking, the audio is below average. It sounds hollow and metallic with plenty of noise.
Subtitles are available in traditional and simplified Chinese and in English as well. I cannot judge the Chinese subtitle quality (I don’t understand the language), but the English subtitles are not really good. Translations often sound very “artificial”, but you still get the message. Aside that, subtitles sometimes scroll too fast to be read. However, I found it bothering that some crucial parts of the movie lacked English subtitles. Spy messages and newspaper headlines are never translated.
The DVD opens with some sort of copyright notice. There is a basic and kitschy animated menu, available in Chinese only. Press some buttons to find the supposedly English subtitles. Scene selection consists of six chapters.
Don’t expect too much in terms of visual quality. There is dust, there are speckles, the image is soft and shows contrast boosting. I am 99.99% certain that this film lacks any form of sensible restoration. The audio is of similar quality. Reading the English subtitles sometimes may feel as a punishment, but in general assist you in forming an idea of what is going on. There are plenty of propaganda elements present, and it is not recommended to watch this film when in a romantic mood. If you have read Lifton’s book, this movie is highly recommended. For the unprepared and merely curious viewer, this 100-min story may be a bit dull, and the resulting agony might just be enough to mold you into a fierce anti-Communist combatant. There are more salubrious introductions to the genre, for instance Raid or Secret Drawing.