Unfinished Comedy

dir. Lu Ban

TIFF Cinematheque - Retrospective

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Never screened upon release and rarely seen since, this hilarious and cutting satire on Communist Party propaganda and ideological orthodoxy is easily the most surprising discovery of this series and perhaps the greatest Mainland film of the "Seventeen Years" period.


"Seventeen Years" director Lu Ban was a master of comedies that gently tweaked the Party bureaucracy; his most famous film, When the New Director Arrives, poked good-natured fun at the feudal impulses and reactionary mindset of some lower Party officials. But Unfinished Comedy, easily the most surprising discovery of this series, is something else entirely. Never screened upon release and rarely seen since, its formal audacity and radical critique of Party censors landed it in hot water just as the Hundred Flowers Campaign, the brief period of significant artistic freedom in the late 1950s, was coming to a close; Lu himself was heavily persecuted, and never made another film. More or less playing themselves, two famous comedians from pre-Revolution days perform a series of sketches in a theatre for a group of Party cadres (purported to be "authorities in literary criticism"). The stage performances blend over into absurdist, self-contained fantasy episodes where the two comics allegorically parody Party propaganda and ideological orthodoxy. The cadres, as one might imagine, are far from amused, and their reactions parallel the film's real-life treatment at the hands of the government. "Perhaps the most accomplished film made in the seventeen years between 1949 and the Cultural Revolution" (Paul Clark, Chinese Cinema: Culture and Politics Since 1949).