You could call it ‘the battle of the two Lei’s’. In early March a trilogy of films celebrating the life of Communist Party icon Lei Feng faced off against the musical Les Miserables at the box office [for those unfamiliar with French, the ‘Les” in the French title is pronounced identically to the ‘Lei’ in the Chinese biopic].
Not surprisingly, Les Miserables, starring Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway did pretty well (see WiC184). But the Lei Feng movies struggled to pull in the crowds. Then again, not even the most pessimistic of cinema bosses – who were forced to carry the Lei Feng films – could have predicted quite how badly they would fare. Despite an order for Party cadres to organise mass viewings, some cinemas failed to sell a single ticket.
“Normally at least one person wants to go and see a movie,” an employee at a cinema in the city of Nanjing told the Yangtze Evening Daily. “In this case no one did. In the end we had to cancel it.”
So why the massive flop? After all, similar propaganda releases, such as The Founding of the Republic, didn’t do so poorly.
Part of the reason is probably that The Young Lei Feng, and its successors The Sweetest Smile and Lei Feng 1959 did not have the big budget appeal of earlier efforts. That meant that they lacked star power too, with Lei being played by previously unknown actors. Audiences may also have been concerned the films would be boring, given what they learned about Lei in school.
Lei Feng was said to have been a rank-and-file soldier in the People’s Liberation Army killed in 1962 by a falling telegraph pole.
After his death, Lei’s superiors were said to have discovered a diary in which he waxed lyrical about his love for leader Mao Zedong, as well as the joy he derived from carrying out selfless acts such as helping railway porters with their work during busy holidays.
In August 1963 Mao ordered that the diary be published and that people “learn from Lei Feng”.
Since then every Chinese leader has, at one time or another, invoked the image of Lei to encourage the spirit of self-sacrifice in serving others.
“Lei’s power of faith in the Communist Party, love for all, selfless spirit and desire to excel are the best reflection of our national spirit. They are our national backbone,” Xi Jinping told delegates at the National People’s Congress this year.
Yet the failure of the films suggests that Lei no longer resonates with the wider population as he once did. Most agree that society is in need of healthier role models but they question whether a figure whose life was almost certainly half-fabricated is fit for purpose.
“After a while students learn that Lei Feng is a fake. He existed but all the stories about him are made up. It’s destructive. You feel that nothing is real. How can they teach virtues this way? It’s impossible,” the writer Ran Yunfei told the New York Review of Books last year.
To counter similar criticism the government has gone on a publicity drive to bolster Lei’s image. A new book was published last month answering common questions about Lei, such as why his everyday acts were captured so often on camera (he was just an ordinary army grunt) and why, having only received a basic education, Lei was able to write with such literary flourish.
Previous efforts to protect Lei’s reputation included the “discovery” of 82 year-old Zhang Jun, a photographer who claimed to have taken many of the photos of China’s most famous soldier.
Sent on a publicity tour, Zhang told journalists, “I am devoting my limited life to the limitless cause of preserving Lei Feng.”
It was more limited than he expected. Sadly only weeks later, Zhang died of a heart attack during a speaking engagement. Apparently, even his dying words were a paean to Lei’s reputation.
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