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The Passion of the Mao The Passion of the Mao

Directed by: Lee Feigon

Three decades after his death, the once polarizing Mao Zedong has escaped the grip of Western consciousness. For a figure that came to define capitalism's mortal enemy, the fall has been precipitous, perhaps guided by the pressing demands of the new world economic order that have tossed the old communist polemics into the heap of historical curiosities.

Director Lee Feigon's documentary, "The Passion of the Mao," revisits the controversial figure in an often entertaining tale that conflates the communist leader's public persona with his private dispositions. The title suggests thematic parallels between the cult of Mao's personality and Christianity. Depictions of the Chinese leader wearing a crown of thorns, ascending on angel wings and accusations of betrayal inform the backdrop for the exploration of this (seemingly) God-like personality.

The documentary traces the customary biopic arc from Mao's upbringing in rural China to his death in 1976. Director Feigon supplements period newsreels, propaganda films, interviews and Maoist title quotes with cartoonish animation - and a Simpsonian nasal expression - that sometimes seeps amusingly into the archival footage. The narrator (Aaron Freeman) leads the epic tour confidently with stops at all the well-known, quasi mythical, benchmark events. His voice-over commentary occasionally strays from the neutral when he veers into the smugly indignant.

Mao's communist ideology emerges despite relatively comfortable early years. The struggle with, then against, the Guomintang to resist the Japanese occupation presents the nascent military leader with the seeds of his political future. When Western nations rebuke his entreaties, Mao turns to the Soviet model for initial inspiration and support. When Feigon hints at the consequences of isolationist policies, the documentary hits a high point and strikes a resonant contemporary note.

Feigon punctuates the historical record of the Long March, Anti-Rightist Movement, Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution with startling and sometimes crude anecdotes that fashion an all-too-human image. Mao pursued countless women, married a few and fathered several children in an out of wedlock. He had a fondness for pornography and, on occasion, men, too. Mao suffered from constipation all his life and had, let's just say, peculiar hygiene.

The documentary focuses on Mao's central planning economic successes and heaves - rightfully - ample praise on his industrial, farming, social and educational achievements. But Feigon treads too close to a revisionist position when he gives barely a passing nod to regime excesses and abuses of the Cultural Revolution. For support, he enlists Wang Zheng, a professor of women's studies at the University of Michigan, who describes her assignment to dig canals by hand in rural China as "romantic" labor for her country and equates the hardship to rock climbing in Yosemite. But stunning admissions and favorable statistics do not redress human rights violations. Instead, they hamstring the significance of this documentary.

- Benoit Lebourgeois

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