Biopic of heroic rural school teacher faces backlash for controversial adaption
Published: Nov 21, 2023 02:11 AM
Poster of the film Beyond the clouds Photo: Weibo

Poster of the film Beyond the clouds Photo: Weibo

The upcoming release of the film Beyond the clouds, adapted from the remarkable life of Zhang Guimei, a female Chinese school principal that helped thousands of girls in the remote mountain areas receive a proper education, has been met with controversy during its preview screenings, with some criticizing its inaccurate depiction of the life of Zhang and her students.

"I am born beyond the clouds not underneath a stream, and I aspire to gaze down upon the mediocrity of ravines from the summit of the peaks" - the movie's title is derived from the motto of the school established by Zhang, which was China's first free high school for girls from impoverished families in a remote mountainous areas.

As the headmaster of the Huaping High School for Girls in Lijiang, Southwest China's Yunnan Province, Zhang has helped some 1,645 female students receive a high school education since the school was established in 2008.

Scheduled for official release on November 24, the movie has been met with backlash from the audience who have seen the preview screenings. One of the most controversial parts lies in an alternation where her real-life alcoholic father has been rewritten as an alcoholic mother, while the image of the father was portrayed more positively as loving and caring.

Some netizens expressed fury and confusion toward these kind of plot devices, saying it is uncanny to see a movie that is supposed to showcase the spirits of female filled with underlying messages that praise men while demeaning women, ultimately emerging still as a product of the male perspective.

The film's depiction of Zhang's life has also been questioned. In the movie, whenever Zhang has met difficulties, she would think of her deceased husband, drawing strengths from the past happiness. However, the fact is that she founded the school after witnessing the plight of women, and what sustained her to keep on going is her unwavering faith in the Communist Party of China, she once said in an interview.

Some disappointed viewers commented that the movie "not only failed to emphasize Zhang's original aspirations but even altered the essence of her greatness" by putting her husband as the main source of her strength.

Zhang Yiwu, a professor of Chinese language and literature from Peking University, told the Global Times on Monday that despite the flaws, the movie's intention is undoubtedly worth praising. Zhang Guimei is a national hero with a tremendous influence in China, and tackling such a significant subject takes courage and considerable efforts.

However, the expert believes the movie needs further polishing in order to strike a balance between artistic creation and staying true to Zhang's story, which requires careful handling. "Biographical films should strive to authentically portray the character, as Zhang herself is an emblematic figure for the nation, and her experiences are already deeply moving. While artistic embellishments are permissible, they should not stray from the core essence of the character," Zhang Yiwu said.

Nevertheless, the irrational and excessive criticisms against the movie are also not acceptable, Zhang Yiwu added.

Responding to the backlashes on Sunday, the film's screenwriters slammed the critics as those who "divided and undermined women", while claiming they don't genuinely wish to see women rescued or witness the rise of female strength, further fueling public debate.

China Movie Channel soon criticized the improper response from screenwriters but meanwhile refuted the negative comments, saying some individuals aimed to incite gender tension by expressing the "bizarre logic" that "male directors cannot make good stories about women." Some of these critics' accounts came from overseas, while others are self-media accounts chasing after the popularity of female-related topics.

The malicious selective criticism and generalizations have tarnished this film, according to the China Movie Channel, drowning out the shining stories of humanity portrayed within the film.

Observers believe, however, that it is normal for a movie to face criticisms. Yang Xuedong, a professor of political science at Tsinghua University, told the Global Times on Monday that the controversies have highlighted the diversity of the Chinese society, and debate is a good thing as it brings more attention to important topics that may sometimes have been overshadowed by grand narratives.

"Over time, these discussions will lead to a broader understanding and awareness, and in this case, the topic of gender equality," Yang said.

Zhang Yiwu noted that the criticism stems from the high expectations and demands from the public, as Chinese people has a strong sense of national identity, and has projected a lot of emotions onto Zhang Guimei. "They see her as a representative figure of the Chinese nation, and her good deeds not only helped girls in the remote mountains but also inspired the Chinese people."