‘Bamboo in Winter’: A Chinese Girl Defies a Communist State

A young Chinese woman sees the ugly truth of the communist regime in Bill Myers film.
‘Bamboo in Winter’: A Chinese Girl Defies a Communist State
Theatrical poster for "Bamboo in Winter" (cropped). (Heinz Fussle Films)

PG | 58 min | Drama | 1991

In late 20th-century China, a young college girl, Ah Choi (Crystal Kwok), graduates from university; 11 months later, she awaits a government placement that never comes. With no sign of a promising job in the city, she returns to her widowed father (Roy Chiao), her ailing grandma (Mary Walter), and farming in her village. Choi believes her mother died of an illness.

Rural folk flock to hear Christian preacher (Dennis Chan), defying Cadre (Stuart Ong) and the unapologetically communist Public Security Board,” both of whom believe that such preachers are enemies of the state. Cadre has built his privileges and Chinese Communist Party (CCP) membership over the years by cozying up to the Board. He isn’t about to surrender that because his village suffers a bout of “belief.” So, he becomes an informant.
Theatrical poster for "Bamboo in Winter" (cropped). (Heinz Fussle Films)
Theatrical poster for "Bamboo in Winter" (cropped). (Heinz Fussle Films)

Choi, feeling that Cadre is too old and dull for her taste, rebuffs his marriage proposal. Meanwhile, praying for a miracle to heal Grandma, Choi finds the preacher’s message of love, renewal, and sacrifice appealing. Later, she discovers that her parents were tortured by the communist regime because of their beliefs, triggering her mother’s premature death. The regime also accuses the preacher of not going along with the state-inspired doctrine and propaganda. Bravely, Choi turns traitor to the regime, aware of the heavy price that she’ll have to pay.

Released just two years after the CCP massacred university students who defied them in Tiananmen Square in 1989, this film isn’t so much about religion as it is about a central tenet of democracy: freedom to believe and to express that belief. If anything, Seattle-born screenwriter and director Bill Myers crafts his film as a pacifist but a firm rejoinder to the CCP. Like those real-life martyred students, Choi’s youthful idealism about her beloved China awakens in her a very rooted sense of self that the state tries to cut out. Personifying regime loyalists, the cadre huffs: “No one can oppose our government. They will be destroyed.”

Mr. Myers likens ordinary Chinese to stately bamboo shoots that feature prominently in his film. As the preacher tells Choi, and as she later tells Cadre: It makes no difference how strong the wind, how cold the winter, or how many times they’re cut down, bamboo shoots always sprout and rise again, not individually but together. In this way, they are even more capable of renewing themselves and other shoots.

Death here is but a seed.

Message More Than Method

Shorn of gloss, artifice, and entertainment value, this film often feels like an overly staged documentary. Yet, its moral matters more than its lack of polish. The actors deliver dialogue in English (no subtitles), even if studio overdubbing robs some scenes of authenticity. Mr. Myers makes up for that with fetching footage of village life: bamboo shoots towering like hillocks, mist-soaked mountains, geese gallivanting, women drawing water or washing clothes in a stream, oxen plowing inundated fields, and planters bending low to sow the bright-green crop.

For all her time at the university, Choi is at home in the village. She boils rice, hangs clothes to dry, and ferries crops to and from fields; she feeds Grandma her soup, and she holds up a lantern and leads Grandma by the hand during a late evening walk. Never mind that the old lady dozes off at the preacher’s sermon.

<span style="color: #000000;">People commemorate the 20th anniversary of the June 4, 1989, Tiananmen Square massacre.</span> (Ryanne Lai/CC BY-SA 2.0)
People commemorate the 20th anniversary of the June 4, 1989, Tiananmen Square massacre. (Ryanne Lai/CC BY-SA 2.0)
The cadre pretends to care, making a show of secretly warning Choi of impending state crackdowns. But he restrains her when she rushes to warn the preacher. Why lose the good life for the preacher’s sake? “In the end, that’s all that counts. ... It’s all we Chinese have left.” It takes Choi to remind him that students at Tiananmen Square had dreams of a good life, too, but chose something of a higher order to live and die for.

The highest Cadre can aspire to is materialistic scrap he covets and that a grateful Board flings his way: a refrigerator or a color TV. Cadre tempts the peasants: If they hand over the preacher to interrogators, “all will be forgiven, there’ll be no penalties, ... no fines,” he promises. But when the unarmed peasants stand their ground, he allows baton-wielding soldiers to attack them.

In another scene, Choi’s father confesses to her how he and his wife were believers, too, but were captured, forced to wear dunce hats, paraded through the streets, taunted by onlookers, and then beaten and tortured. Frustrated as he speaks, her father smashes a wine glass. As it drips down the wall, Choi stares at the wine that somehow seems to resemble the “red” of communism that bleeds its people dry.

Bamboo in Winter

Director: Bill Myers Starring: Crystal Kwok, Roy Chiao, Stuart Ong MPAA Rating: PG Running Time: 58 minutes Release Date: Jan. 3, 1991 Where to Watch: Tubi TV, YouTube Rated: 3 stars out of 5

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