China, 2011, colour, 1.85:1, 112 mins.
Director: Zhao Chongji 赵崇基 [Derek Chiu].
Initially promising drama of a 1911 China uprising is let down by a weaker second half.
Huizhou, Guangdong province, southern China, Oct 1900. After failing to assassinate the governor-general by blowing up his mansion as part of the anti-Manchu Huizhou Uprising, revolutionary Shi Jianru is captured and executed. In Guangzhou, Guangdong province, 1911, following other unsuccessful uprisings, Pan Dawei (Xie Junhao), deputy head of the Guangzhou department of the Tongmenghui (Chinese Revolutionary Alliance), arrives by boat and smuggles weapons past customs officers. During a dinner party at the house of wealthy local trader Fang Hongzhi (Wang Jiancheng), head of the Guangxing business association, there is an assassination attempt on the Manchu Qing government’s Marine Minister Li Zhun (Zeng Zhiwei), which fails. Among the guests is Luo Zhonghuo (Zhao Bingrui), just arrived from Penang, Malaysia, who gets to know Fang Hongzhi’s daughter, Fang Huiru (Jiang Ruolin), also a revolutionary. Afterwards she takes him to the house of painter Gao Jianfu (Liao Qizhi), head of the Tongmenghui’s Guangzhou department. Luo Zhonghuo is carrying a letter from Tongmenghui leader Sun Zhongshan [Sun Yat-sen], but neither Gao Jianfu nor Pan Dawei are sure whether he is a spy. To convince them Luo Zhonghuo is genuine, Fang Huiru suggests he tries raising some money for the movement from her father, by first becoming friendly with his cultured longtime mistress Jiang Meixi (Wen Bixia). Luo Zhonghuo becomes Jiang Meixi’s English tutor and helps Fang in getting a local gang off of the Guangxing’s turf. As Chinese New Year arrives, Gao Jianfu and Pan Dawei plan a mass suicide attack on the governor-general’s residence – in what will become known as the Huanghuagang Uprising of 27 Apr 1911.
Before it starts losing dramatic momentum around the hour mark, 72 Martyrs 英雄喋血 looks like being the best of the trio of movies released this autumn  on turn-of-the-century revolutionaries, all made by Hong Kong directors in China and backed by Mainland money. It doesn’t have the visual scale of 1911, but it does have a promising dramatic arc and interesting characters; and though it doesn’t have the ambition of The Woman Knight of Mirror Lake 竞雄女侠秋瑾 to re-define the Mainland biopic in Hong Kong genre terms, it does have a literate script and some fine performances to anchor it. As such, this film by Hong Kong film-maker Zhao Chongji 赵崇基 [Derek Chiu] falls somewhere between those two movies in overall quality.
With Knight sketching the lead-up to the events of 1911, and Martyrs giving a fuller version of 1911‘s initial section, the three movies dovetail into a series of different takes by southern Chinese film-makers on the southern Chinese revolutionary movement that turned the country from a monarchy to a republic. None reach down very far politically, though Martyrs, in its first half, best portrays the undercover nature of the movement, riven by suspicion and skullduggery. And in terms of Zhao’s career, Martyrs basically forms a sequel to his Road to Dawn 夜•明 (aka Before the Sunrise, 2007), which dealt with the work of revolutionary leader Sun Zhongshan [Sun Yat-sen] the previous year from his temporary base in Malaysia (also shown briefly at the start of 1911).
As a pure movie, Dawn was hampered by being shot entirely on location in Penang and having to show off the region, too much stiff dialogue, and Li Xinjie 李心洁 [Angelica Lee] in a perky role that didn’t really fit into a political drama. Martyrs is similarly let down by Mainland actress Jiang Ruolin 江若琳 in an isn’t-it-fun-to-be-a-revolutionary role, but is way superior in its production values, with smooth photography by Hong Kong’s Feng Yuanwen 冯远文 [Edmond Fung], solid art direction by his compatriot Huo Dahua 霍达华, and a much better script by the same writer, Wang Mei 王梅 (aka Meazi 梅梓). The major problem with Wang’s screenplay is that, after a strong beginning and a middle section that detours to a young revolutionary’s friendship with a businessman’s kept woman, she lacks the writing technique to revive the atmosphere of the opening in the lead-up to the finale, especially as several major personalities of the uprising such as Huang Ying (the role played by Cheng Long 成龙 [Jackie Chan] in 1911) and martyr Lin Juemin are hardly mentioned.
This weakness is particularly noticeable as the finale – the Huanghuagang Uprising, in which 70% of the 120 participants died, with only 72 bodies identified – actually takes place off-screen. This bold structural gamble could even have worked if there was enough personal drama going on to replace the expected climax; but in the event it just looks like the budget wouldn’t stretch that far.
Zhao, 50, a variable director who’s done all types of movies from the artier (Mr. Sardine 沙甸鱼杀人事件, 1994) to engaging rom-coms (Frugal Game 悭钱家族, 2002), directs unexcitingly but carefully. Performances, however, are generally strong, led by China’s Wang Jiancheng 王建成 as ruthless business leader Fang Hongzhi and Hong Kong’s Xie Junhao 谢君豪 and Liao Qizhi 廖启智 [Liu Kai-chi] as the revolutionary leaders. In a fascinating casting footnote, South Korean actress Oh U-jeong 오우정 | 吴友静 (Enlightenment Film 계몽영화, 2009) appears in a mute role as Fang Hongzhi’s menacing personal bodyguard that cries out for more development.
The film is also known as 72 Heroes. An earlier version of the incident is The 72 Martyrs of Canton 碧血黄花 (1954), made in Mandarin in Hong Kong by nine directors to celebrate the second term of Taiwan president Jiang Jieshi [Chiang Kai-shek].
Presented by Pearl River Film Group (CN). Produced by Pearl River Movie Media (CN).
Script: Wang Mei. Photography: Feng Yuanwen [Edmond Fung]. Editing: Wang Mei, Wang Chao. Music: Su Junjie. Art direction: Huo Dahua. Costume design: Wu Baoling [Bobo Ng]. Sound: Lu Hong, Wei Chunyi. Visual effects: Huang Zhiheng, Huang Zhijie.
Cast: Xie Junhao (Pan Dawei), Zhao Bingrui (Luo Zhonghuo), Jiang Ruolin (Fang Huiru), Liao Qizhi [Liu Kai-chi] (Gao Jianfu), Wen Bixia (Jiang Meixi), Wang Jiancheng (Fang Hongzhi, Fang Huiru’s father), Zeng Zhiwei [Eric Tsang] (Li Zhun), Tan Yonglin [Alan Tam] (Huang Ying/Huang Keqiang), Huang Liqing (Mrs. Pan), Oh U-jeong (Fang Hongzhi’s female bodyguard), Wu Jiahui (Liu Si), Song Tao (Yu Peilun), Wang Kai (Lin Wen), Zhang Yang (Lin Juemin), Wu Jian (Hui), Sun Xiaojun (Qiang), Tao Yi (girl), Li Qilin (Qing army captain), Jiang Hong (Wu’s mother).
Release: China, 15 Sep 2011.
(Review originally published on Film Business Asia, 3 Dec 2011.)