China Syndrome

For years, “Eppy” was a puzzle and a challenge for Ron Levaco, a former professor of film at San Francisco State College who was born in China. Even now, Levaco considers Eppy a bit of an enigma — the man who remains faithful to the Chinese Revolution despite five years of solitary confinement. It took a decade for Levaco to make Round Eyes in the Middle Kingdom, a documentary centered around Israel “Eppy” Epstein, the son of Russian Jews who immigrated to China when he was 2 years old.

The 51-minute film (to be shown as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival) brilliantly juxtaposes the choices made by mostly privileged Western residents in pre-World War II China and the fate of the Chinese, suffering through famine, war, and revolution. Levaco's father, Robert, also the son of Russian Jewish emigres, and Eppy were close friends from the time they were children at the British-run Tientsin school.

Robert Levaco became a businessman who enjoyed country-club socializing; he immigrated to the United States in 1949 when Ron was 9. Eppy, imbued with the ideals of his socialist father, was always concerned about the Chinese. At 15, he became a journalist; later he covered Japan's invasion for United Press International; was interned by the Japanese army in 1943; escaped; made his way behind Japanese lines to Communist headquarters in Yenan; and eventually threw in his lot with Mao's government. He founded and edited China Reconstructs, an English-language magazine, and recently wrote the authorized biography of Madame Sun Yat-sen. During the paranoid Cultural Revolution, he and his second wife, Elsie, the daughter of a British missionary, were separated; each spent five years in solitary confinement. Epstein's chief fear was that he would be thrown across the border.

“My whole life has been bound up with this revolution and this ideal of socialism, which of course is easier as an ideal than in the actual working out,” Eppy says in the documentary. “If I was to be separated from that, or excommunicated from that, I would feel that my whole life had been wasted.”

Meanwhile, in the U.S. at the height of the anti-Communist hysteria fostered by Sen. Joe McCarthy, Levaco's father warned him not to talk about their life in China. “Even though my father was anti-Communist,” Levaco says, “he gave me a mythic sense of Eppy. He kept saying that Eppy was the sweetest, brightest, nicest, most honest guy he knew. And I'd ask, 'How can he be so honest if Time magazine is writing about him as a turncoat, a propagandist, and traitor to the West?' My father would say, 'He's true to his own beliefs.' “

Then, when Eppy was imprisoned, the young Levaco had a second wave of questions: ” 'If this guy is so honest and loyal, why did they arrest him?' My father would answer, 'That's why I hate communism. You can't trust those sons of bitches.' “

Ron Levaco got his own taste of Communist ideology when he was doing research in the Soviet Union on his Ph.D. thesis, translating the work of Lev Kuleshov (1899-1970), a filmmaker who was the first aesthetic theorist of the cinema. However, by the time Levaco arrived in Moscow in 1970, during the stifling Brezhnev regime, Kuleshov's analyses, influenced by futurism, formalism, and structural linguistics, had long been anathema. The official dogma was socialist realism. Although Levaco was supposed to spend a year there, he was only permitted a month's stay. Nevertheless, his book, Kuleshov on Film, was published in 1974.

About this time, the Epsteins were able to travel to the U.S. Levaco's impression of Eppy was favorable, despite his reluctance to express any criticism of China, but it wasn't easy to persuade him to be interviewed on film. The two corresponded for a year before Eppy put Levaco in touch with officials. In 1986, the China Film Co-Production Corp. invited Levaco, his wife, Roz, and a producer to film, but only with a super 8. They got enough material for a sample clip and began raising money to pay for a shoot with professional equipment. The documentary eventually cost approximately $200,000.

“Meanwhile, I was worried that a single interview with Eppy, who was unknown and spoke haltingly, would not make a movie, but I didn't have any idea how personal I was going to get,” Levaco says. As the documentary evolved, it included home movies shot by Levaco's father, interviews with other “round-eyes” (Westerners) who had spent years in China, an army colonel's footage of ordinary Chinese life in the '40s, and rare color film of the old Chinese headquarters in Yenan, found in previously unexamined archives at the Hoover Institute.

Reflecting on his experience in China, Levaco says, “All we can ask of a human being is that he make an ethical choice in a difficult situation given what is known at that time. We can't predict what will happen in a marriage — or a revolution. Eppy saw the hardships of the Chinese people and opted to stay with them, come what may.”

Round Eyes in the Middle Kingdom screens Tues, April 30, at the Kabuki in S.F. and Sat, May 4, at the Lark in Larkspur as part of the 39th San Francisco International Film Festival. For more information on the festival, see Movie Capsules, Page 60, and Showtime, Page 66.

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