Film Review: ‘Feet Unbound’4 min readReading Time: 3 minutes
Director: Ng Khee Jin
Runtime: 107 minutes
Written by: Ivan Chin
I don’t usually watch documentaries, but was keen on this as it explored a lesser-known side of history. Other films about China’s history are about the Cultural Revolution, but Feet Unbound touches on the Long March instead. It saw several groups in the Red Army forced to flee from the Guomindang, lasting a year and stretching for thousands of kilometres. Despite being part of China’s modern history, it doesn’t seem to be widespread knowledge. Though many have a vague awareness of the events, few are privy to the suffering endured by the soldiers, especially the 2000 girls who were robbed of their lives at a tender age. By the end of the march, only 10 girl soldiers remained.
Ng Khee Jin’s documentary follows Beijing-based reporter Elly Zhen Ying, tracing the steps of the Red Army’s retreat through China. The film’s title, Feet Unbound refers to the practice of tying a girl’s feet at infancy. After being unbound, many had trouble walking due to physical defects. In the film, this feels like a metaphor, in which the girls make the journey with only their two feet to carry them. While recreating it and interviewing the survivors, you can see Elly feels a deep empathy for them. Though the context is set against a civil war, there are no political agendas pushed. Both Khee Jin’s and Elly’s goal here is simply to tell a story, one that digs into the humanity behind the forgotten and nameless.
The interviews with the survivors might be the last few chances to tell their story, most of whom are too old to even travel. Through tearful eyes, they recount their sordid tales of being abused and left to fend for themselves. Even decades later, they’re still haunted by the memories. Most are candid enough, even though it’s obvious that dredging up those traumatic memories reopens old wounds. Their descriptions conjure up vivid scenes of grotesque violence, enough to make one shudder. They paint a grisly picture of their experiences during The Long March – countless fellow soldiers dying under harsh conditions, without a proper burial. Poverty forced them to join the Red Army, where they could be fed. To them, it might have been the only way of survival.
While the interviews give us a first-person account, following Elly as she travels adds a personal touch. As she takes us through the mountains and grasslands, we get to see where the soldiers would have passed. Thousands of them set out on the journey, but few survived. We’re reminded of the brutal conditions they had to weather. Elly notes that none of the survivors talks about the resplendent nature in their surroundings, which to a city girl seems mesmerising. Of course, she has the luxury of traversing the mountain ranges by car. For her, they’re painted as a scenic backdrop instead of a hurdle. The younger soldiers had to cross the steep snowy mountains, all while hungry, tired, and battered by the cold.
Elly also reveals her desire to break away from the monotony of her life by taking on this project. Her empathy for the unknown soldiers who perished in The Long March is evident throughout the film. In one scene, Elly tries to recreate a soldier’s experience in foraging for food on the grasslands. She attempts to start a fire to cook a belt made of yak’s skin, one of the few things that were supposedly edible. As the fire fizzles out in the wintry cold, she’s left to stare at the remnants and begins to sob.
Through this documentary, we get to glimpse into the past, one that’s slowly being forgotten. One can only imagine how the real ordeal would have felt like, without any inkling of how or when it would end. If you’re keen to explore a side of history that might not be common knowledge, or even to learn about the female soldiers, this might be a film to consider.
Feet Unbound‘s DVD is available for purchase via OBJECTIFS.
This review is published as part of *SCAPE’s Film Critics Lab: A Writing Mentorship Programme.
About the author:
Ivan Chin is film lover who enjoys a variety of genres, from blockbusters to avant-garde cinema.He has a penchant for Chinese cinema, specifically Hong Kong, and wants to see more local films gain recognition. He tries to write something about each film he watches as he feels there’s certainly something worth mentioning.