Beginning of the Great Revival
China, 2011, colour/b&w, 2.35:1, 118 mins.
Directors: Han Sanping 韩三平, Huang Jianxin 黄建新.
Cameo-studded blockbuster of the CCP’s founding is a notch down on Founding of a Republic but still a savvy big-screen experience.
China, 1911. Following the Wuchang Uprising of 10 Oct against the ruling Qing dynasty, 16 provinces declare independence and found the Republic of China on 1 Jan 1912. KMT leader Sun Zhongshan (Ma Shaohua), who returns from a trip to the US, is elected provisional president but later yields the post to Qing commander-in-chief Yuan Shikai (Zhou Runfa), who agrees to pressure child emperor Puyi to abdicate. In elections for a National Assembly the KMT is victorious but Yuan Shikai exercises more and more influence in his role as president, forcing Sun Zhongshan to flee to Japan in late 1913. Yuan Shikai his military power to crush the KMT, dissolve the National Assembly and become Head of State, later taking the title of Emperor of the Chinese Empire. Yunnan provincial governor Cai E (Liu Dehua) leads a rebellion against Yuan Shikai and forces his resignation, leaving the country with no effective leader and controlled by warlords. At the same time as growing protests by students and intellectuals, Sun Zhongshan returns to China in 1917 and heads a military government in Guangzhou. Meanwhile, in Changsha, capital of Hunan province, high-school student Mao Zedong graduates and decides to go to Beijing, where he studies part-time at the university and marries Yang Kaihui (Li Qin). In 1919 Mao Zedong returns to Hunan before a planned trip to Paris with other radicals. That year the 4 May Movement, triggered by anti-Japanese/anti-imperialist student protests in Beijing, erupts and later spreads to Shanghai. Mao Zedong decides at the last moment to stay in China. Eventually, in summer 1921, the Chinese Communist Party is founded in Shanghai by Li Dazhao (Zhang Jiayi), Chen Duxiu (Feng Yuanzheng), Hu Shi (Wu Yanzu), Li Da (Huang Jue) and others.
The savvy idea by China Film Group [then] head Han Sanping 韩三平 of “selling” official anniversary movies to the general public by cramming them with star cameos worked a treat in the 2009 The Founding of a Republic 建国大业, made to celebrate the 60th anni of the PRC. The clever marketing wheeze gets a second outing in the more clumsily titled Beginning of the Great Revival 建党伟业, celebrating the 100th birthday of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party in Shanghai – and the result still works, though to a lesser extent. It still works because Han and his returning co-director, experienced veteran Huang Jianxin 黄建新 (The Black Cannon Incident 黑炮事件, 1986; Turn Left, Turn Right 红灯停绿灯行, 1995; Gimme Kudos 求求你，表扬我, 2005), manage through sheer technique to turn an episodic, cameo-studded structure into a genuine big-screen experience by changing moods at a moment’s notice; but to a lesser extent because (a) the drama, set during just a 10-year period, is smaller in scope and inherently less panoramic, and (b) because the star-cameo concept is a tad less fresh.
As in the first film, many cameos didn’t make the final cut because of running-time considerations – reportedly, some 60 cameos (including actress Tang Wei 汤唯) were ditched, representing 18 minutes of screen time, and may later be put online. However, with Hong Kong stars like Zhou Runfa 周润发 [Chow Yun-fat], 刘德华 Liu Dehua [Andy Lau], Ren Dahua 任达华 [Simon Yam], Wu Yanzu 吴彦祖 [Daniel Wu] and Zhang Jiahui 张家辉 [Nick Cheung], and Mainlanders like Liu Ye 刘烨, Chen Kun 陈坤, Zhou Xun 周迅, Wang Xuebing 王学兵 and Wang Xueqi 王学圻, the movie still has a high ooh-look! factor, with the audience continually involved in a game of spotting faces. (As in the first film, roles are identified with captions, but not the actual actor.)
This works well – expecially for audiences familiar with Mainland names – when it’s comedians like Feng Gong 冯巩, Fan Wei 范伟 and Zhao Benshan 赵本山, here in straight roles, or for blink-and-you’ll-miss-them appearances by actresses like Fan Bingbing 范冰冰, Dong Jie 董洁 or Yang Ying 杨颖 [Angelababy]. But in dramatic terms only a very few get a chance to build real performances, notably Zhou Runfa in a sizeable role as generalissimo-turned-despot Yuan Shikai and Liu Ye as a young Mao Zedong. With his physical presence, Zhou gives the first section considerable dramatic heft and Liu, looking amazingly like a young Mao Zedong, is also believable in a more low-key way (especially as Mao Zedong’s role in the founding of the CCP was actually very small).
For foreign viewers unacquainted with the complex ins-and-outs of the period, the movie will take some following, though the history has been cleverly compressed and sticks pretty closely to events, allowing for some cinematic licence. To its credit, there is some time spent on how the CCP groped its way towards a unified political stance, flirting with and then rejecting other revolutionary and communist models to finally come up with one that suited the Chinese (rather than European or Russian) experience. And though brief, many of the cameos etch characters in a succinct and immediate way.
Kudos in that respect seems to go to co-director Huang, whose 1990s movies were especially good in social observation and character buildling. Han’s contribution appears to be more on the visual/design side (acknowledged in his own micro-cameo as a photographer), and here, even more than in Republic, the film comes up with several jaw-dropping setpieces between the political stuff. The 10-minute sequence of the 4 May Movement protests is true big-screen cinema, a New Year sequence featuring Mao Zedong and his second wife in Beijing has a fairytale atmosphere, and the staging of the actual CCP founding (by a dozen characters on a boat in a lake) is genuinely inspired in movie terms, with actress Zhou used in an almost mystical way.
Though the film as a whole is not so grand in scope as Republic, production values are a notch better, with superbly-lit widescreen photography by returning d.p. Zhao Xiaoshi 赵晓时 and an involving musical score again by Shu Nan 舒楠. Some actual B&W documentary footage is included, but relatively little this time round.
Presented by China Film Group (CN).
Script: Dong Zhe, Guo Junli, Huang Xin. Photography: Zhao Xiaoshi. Editing: Xu Hongyu [Derek Hui]. Music: Shu Nan, Ma Shangyou. Production design: Yi Zhenzhou, Wang Wenxun. Sound: Wang Danrong. Executive direction: Du Jun. Associate direction: Li Shaohong, Lu Chuan, Shen Dong.
Cast: Liu Ye (Mao Zedong), Chen Kun (Zhou Enlai), Zhang Zhen (Jiang Jieshi/Chiang Kai-shek), Wu Yusen [John Woo] (Lin Sen), Wu Yanzu [Daniel Wu] (Hu Shi), Li Qin (Yang Kaihui), Zhao Benshan (Duan Qirui), Zhou Runfa [Chow Yun-fat] (Yuan Shikai), Huang Lei (Cao Rulin), Lv Liangwei [Ray Lui] (Wu Peifu), Liu Dehua [Andy Lau] (Cai E), Liao Fan (Zhu De), Dong Jie (Song Qingling), Zhou Xun (Wang Huiwu, Li Da’s wife), He Ping (He Shuheng), Zhang Yishan (Deng Enming), Huang Jue (Li Da), Wang Danrong (Dong Biwu), Li Chen (Zhang Guotao), Huang Xuan (Liu Renjing), Qi Yuwu (Wang Jinmei), Wang Xuebing (Bao Huiseng), Zhou Jie (Li Hanjun), Wang Bojie (Xiao Zisheng), Dong Xuan (Xiang Jingyu), Tan Kai (Chen Tanqiu), Zhang Yi (Zhou Fohai), Tong Ruixin (Chen Gongbo), Ye Xuan [Michelle Ye] (Li Lizhuang, Chen Gongbo’s wife), Fan Zhibo (Cai Chang), Yang Yang (Yang Kaizhi), Liu Yunlong (Jiang Baili), Zhang Jiahui [Nick Cheung] (Liang Qichao), Wang Xinjun (Xu Chongzhi), Fan Wei (Li Yuanhong), Liu Wenzhi (Xu Shichang), Fang Zhongxin [Alex Fong Chung-sun] (Yang Du), Feng Gong (Feng Guozhang), Yu Shaoqun (Mei Lanfang), Zhang Hanyu (Song Jiaoren), Li Jing (Yuan Keding), He Yunwei (French interpreter), Tao Zeru (Zhang Xun), Hou Yong (Tang Shaoyi), Zu Feng (Deng Zhongxia), Lin Shen (Duan Yipeng), Shu Yaoxuan (Wu Bingxiang), Jiang Shan (Zhang Zongxiang’s wife), Xie Mengwei (driver), Fan Lei (head barracks guard), Zhang Shan (Zhang Boling), Nie Weiping (chess player), Zhang Jiayi (Li Dazhao), Yang Ying [Angelababy] (Xiao Feng Xian), Feng Yuanzheng (Chen Duxiu), Wang Xueqi (Cai Yuanpei), Liu Yiwei (Duan Zhigui), Du Chun (Xu Deheng), Guo Jinglin (Zhang Zongxiang), Feng Danying (Zhang Cuixi), Xu Zheng (Duan Qirui, deputy official), Che Yongli (Lu Xiaoman), Nie Yuan (Chen Qimei), Ma Shaohua (Sun Zhongshan/Sun Yat-sen), Wang Luodan (Zhang Ruoming), Ren Zhong (Yuan Jiasheng), Chen Daoming (Gu Weijun), Lin Yongjian (Lu Huixiang), Tian Xiaojie (Shi Zhaoji), Liu Hua (Cheng Ziqing), Ma Jing (reporter), Jing Boran (Xie Shaomin), Wang Lihong (Luo Jialun), Liu Peiqi (Gu Hongming), Bai Bing (Huang Shuyi), Qin Lan (Su Xuelin), Xu Haiqiao (Qu Qiubai), Aixinjueluo Qixing (progressive female student), Wang Yuexin (Li Fuchun), Deng Chao (Chen Yi), Han Geng (Zhao Shiyan), Sergei Barkovsky (Lenin), Yu Xiaoguang (Liu Shaoqi), Xia Fan (Zhang Shenfu), Fan Bingbing (Long Yu, empress), Qiu Muyuan (young Puyi), Wen Zhang (Deng Xiaoping), Liu Tao (Guangxu Jinfei), Chen Ran (Yuan Shikai’s concubine), Li Xuejian (Yang Changji), Zou Junbai (Zhu Qisheng), Hong Jiantao (Huang Xing), Fu Xinbo (Gao Junyu), Hu Xing’er (Yuan Shikai’s concubine), Zhou Yiwei (Aixinjueluo Zaifeng), Vitas (Vedensky), Liu Jin (Kang Youwei), Pan Yueming (Cai Hesen), Ren Dahua [Simon Yam] (Zhang Jian), Jiang Wu (male love martyr), Yang Yang (female love martyr), Guo Tao (Tao Chengzhang), Ju Hao (prison head), Wang Kuirong (Wu Yanfang), Zhao Liang (Xiao De Zhang), Guo Xiaodong (Yu Youren), Guo Yongzhen (Liao Zhongkai), Yang Qianhua [Miriam Yeung] (young Hong Kong woman), Fang Lishen [Alex Fong Lik-san] (young Hong Kong man), Miura Kenichi (Masu Hioki, Japanese diplomat), Shen Junyi (old policeman), Zheng Hao, Li Zefeng (workers), Liu Linian (Cao Kun), Li Chengru (Yang Yide), Han Sanping (photographer), Chen Guoxin (Cao Rulin’s father), Ren Zhengbin (Wei Chenzu), Li Xiang (teacher), Zhang Xilin (Wang Zhengyan), Dai Xu (Yu Fangzhou), Gera Shchenko Andriyan (Henk Sneevliet), Ted E. Duran (Nikolski), Francisco Javier Philip (Shanghai French Concession head).
Release: China, 15 Jun 2011.
(Review originally published on Film Business Asia, 15 Jun 2011.)