directed by Wang Xinjun
(Tianjin, 1993)

China Century Entertainment, sponsors of last February's successful Celebration of Chinese Film Festival, launches a new venture, a weekly series titled Discovering China at the Village East Theater, featuring a new Chinese film with English subtitles every Thursday evening. The inaugural feature was Amanishahan, a historical drama directed by Wang Xinjun, an accomplished experienced filmmaker who grew up in and loves the region that served as the location for this opus.

Amanishahan, set in the 16th century in the Xinjiang province of northwestern China among the indigenous Uighur people, concerns the life of the eponymous protagonist, a beautiful and talented woman whose skill at performing song and instrumental music in the local Mukamu style earned her well-deserved renown. Her musical expertise charms the young Khan Abudureshiti of the Yerchiang Kingdom (the political entity of the time) while he was hunting disguised as a commoner. Smitten, the ruler arranges to marry her, making Amanishahan his favorite concubine and permitting her to use her position and new exalted status to learn and master her beloved Mukamu music and to sponsor the performances of adepts in the variations of this art. Amanishan also used her prestige to get permission to travel the countryside, meeting Mukamu players of every social strata, transcribing song lyrics and melodic modes, collecting the results of her efforts in 12 celebrated volumes passed down to the present day.

The Khan's interest in Amanishahan and her musical activities soon arouses the jealousy of the queen and various nobles of the court, who resent the country girl of peasant origins who commands so much of their ruler's attention. Their plotting results in the death of Amanishahan's dear mentor, who had come with her to court from her rural home, and sends the Khan away from the capital to cope with rebels in the outer regions of the kingdom. Left alone, forbidden by the queen's decree to host musical events or to pursue her interests in Mukamu, Amanishahan pines for her royal lover and her sanctioned artistic pursuits, gradually sickening and dying tragically young. The grief-stricken Khan, who returns home from his campaigns too late to see Amanishahan before she died, declares Mukamu a national treasure and that his deceased darling be honored and memorialized for her artistic achievements. (This has been done in the region to today.)

Director Xinjun's Ahmanishahan, a biopic shot in the Xinjiang province locations where the subject actually lived and meticulously researched, dazzles! With its compelling story, moving performances by Uighur actors, magnificent music filling nearly every scene, spectacular scenery, historic locations and lushly detailed sets and costumes -- this movie offers a colorful, entertaining and emotionally gripping portrayal of a rich and fascinating Moslem people whose brilliant cultural achievements are little known outside of China. Wang's respectful and sympathetic homage that humanizes a revered historical figure may be a bit slow-paced at times for Western audiences used to Hollywood's slam-bang style, yet Amanishahan well rewards those willing to immerse themselves in a time and place of great beauty. Amanishahan, brought to life by a lovely, talented actress, becomes the embodiment of an accomplished, artistic human being who, along with her gifted countryfolk, deserves the widest possible recognition. So too does Wang's filmmaking skill that vividly and enthrallingly recreates the protagonist's social and cultural milieu -- the next best thing to having a time machine. Amanishahan's and her people's wonderful Mukamu music proves to be a worthy and fascinating subject for a remarkable moviegoing experience.

[ by Amy Harlib ]
Rambles: 28 July 2001