In his 27 years as the jowled despot-messiah of China, Mao Zedong was responsible for more deaths than either Hitler or Stalin. Unlike those two models of mass brutality, however, Mao enjoyed a degree of romantic hero worship in the West (in the 1970s, copies of his ''Quotations'' were righteously displayed at my local head shop). To this day, the eccentric cruelty of his regime remains fogged over by a lingering haze of nostalgic Marxist mythology. So it's an eye-opening experience to see Morning Sun, a documentary that chronicles China's descent into the stony-eyed cult of purity and violence known as the Cultural Revolution.
Using newsreel footage, clips of artistic propaganda (e.g., joyful proletarian farm ballets), and interviews with survivors, the movie draws us into the annihilating fervor of an era in which purge followed upon purge, in escalating waves of terror and control. In what has to be one of the most perverse political acts of the 20th century, the people of China became the enemy as well as the cause, as Mao ''united'' with student radicals to destroy the very concept of a middle class -- i.e., anyone who might threaten his power. It's chilling and enraging to take in this portrait of revolution gone mad.