American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
In a small room on a courtyard off Dry Well Lane in Beijing, a marriage is celebrated and a child is born. The people of the courtyard all know one another, and share joys and sorrows and food. They are ordinary, unsophisticated citizens; when a loudspeaker announces the death of Stalin, one of them asks, "Who is this Stalin person?" Into their lives during the next 25 years will come wave after wave of political hysteria, rendering all of their hopes and plans meaningless. "The Blue Kite" (1993) is nothing less than the attempt to show what it was like to live in times of ideological madness.
The boy is called Tietou. The name translates as "iron head." His mother is a teacher, his father is a librarian, and his childhood memories include playmates and family gatherings and the portentous comings and goings of an uncle and his girlfriend who have both joined the army. He remembers especially a blue kite that he treasures, and which is caught in a tree, and how his father promises to give him a new one.
In the early days of the film, China still lives under an informal capitalism, but changes are in the wind. A neighborhood committee comes to question the landlady about her holdings, but is mollified to learn the courtyard is the property of the state, and she has lowered rents. These good citizens understand that the nation must change after the revolution. They do their best to go along, but what they do not understand is that no rational national plan exists. The political winds, which change direction from season to season, function only to bring an end to dissent and individuality--to create a climate of fear within which the country can be controlled.
Eventually one of those winds blows Tietou's father away forever. Shalong (Pu Quanxin) is a good librarian, a faithful employee who is one day called to a meeting as part of the Rectification Movement, in which those with right-wing tendencies must be identified. There is a quota, and the library has not met it. Shalong unwisely leaves the meeting to go to the toilet, and when he returns, all of the eyes in the room are turned to him. He pauses in the doorway and in a chilling instant realizes he chose the wrong time to leave the room.