1911: Film Review

Jackie Chan 1911 Film Still - P 2011

Jackie Chan 1911 Film Still - P 2011

An erratic, laborious interpretation of Chinese revolutionary history that lets down its epic subject.

Jackie Chan stars and co-directs this Chinese historical epic that chronicles the Xinhai Revolution, which ended two centuries of the monarchial system in China.

HONG KONG -- Flouting Chairman Mao’s remark that “Revolution is not taking people out to dinner,” gate crashing and dinner parties take up more screen time than grisly battles and nation building in 1911. Jackie Chan stars and co-directs this historical epic with Zhang Li to commemorate the centennial of the Xinhai Revolution, which ended two centuries of the monarchial system in China. However, Chan has not injected any of his playful charm or physical virtuosity into Wang Xingdong’s and Chen Baoguang’s insipid, poorly structured screenplay.

A mainland Chinese propaganda vehicle through and through, the film postulates history in such a scrappy, inaccessible manner that either as entertainment or education, it’s a lost cause. Initial domestic response is not particularly zealous. Overseas release including a U.S. bow will only pique specialist and academic curiosity. Chan’s usual fan base may give this one a pass despite the astonishing fact that this is his 100th film as an actor.

1911 chronicles the political careers of China’s first president Sun Yat Sen (Winston Chao) and military commander Huang Xing (Chan) as parallel trajectories that embody the two-pronged offensives of the revolution. Sun is the diplomat and statesman spearheading overseas fund-raising efforts and navigating a complex web of western imperialist interests, while Huang gets his hands dirty (and his fingers blown off) in bloody warfare. However, their relationship never delves into personal depths or illuminates how it shaped the country’s destiny. They seldom even appear in the same scene.

Two battles are represented as the turning points in their struggle: the failed third Guangzhou Uprising on April 23, 1911 and the Wuchang Uprising on October 10, 1911 which motivated 14 provinces to declare independence from the reigning Qing court.

The action devised by Chan’s own stunt team is run-of-the-mill and episodic with no forward momentum. The truncated narrative and rushed editing give the dubious impression that the revolutionaries lose battle after battle without putting their strategic position (namely that they were extremely outnumbered and short of ammunition) in context.

Chao, who’s played Sun numerous times since The Song Sisters (1997), practically inhabits the role, infusing the film with a dignified presence. However, this cannot alleviate the stodgy dialogue he’s given, which sounds like reams of political treatises, or the gauche behavior the script assigns him, like making a facile analogy between western imperialist expansionism and a lamb chop.

Screenwriters Wang and Chen, who penned the blockbuster epics The Founding of a Republic and Beginning of the Great Revival, recycle the same formula of making 1911 a vehicle for star-studded cameos. However, stars in 1911 are less numerous and luminous. The gimmick is wearing thin anyway.

Historical accounts of the protagonists’ real lives rock with adventure and romance. The screenplay fails to take advantage of their potential for entertainment. The dearth of background or anecdotal information in characterization is signaled in the prologue execution of Qiu Jin (Ning Jing) without relating to her background as a political visionary and proto-feminist. Huang was a military genius, who held up 20,000-strong Qing troop for a month with 200 men in the Guangxi uprising in 1908. Chan just bounces around the warzone like a cheerleader with daft exhortations like “your safety comes first!”

By comparison, ambitious General Yuan Shikai emerges as the most formidable character as the film devotes more time to reveal how he plays the court and the Republican government against each other. His devious intimidation of Empress Dowager Longyu (Joan Chen hamming up a prima donna act) provides rare moments of dramatic tension.

The film’s only romantic interest -- between Huang and his wife Xu Zonghan (Li Bingbing) completely skims over the process of how their paper wedding blossoms into real love, reducing emotions to a few disconnected reaction shots of Xu frowning or fretting. In the same neglectful way, scholar-martyr Lin Juemin’s (He Ge) celebrated letter (now part of Chinese school curricula) to his wife Chen Yiying is never quoted once, nor have they created a moving episode out of their love. Instead, stylized shots of him frolicking on Penang beach like a Club Med commercial are inserted into totally incongruous scenes over and over.

The technical package is visibly expensive, but skilled cinematography aside its production design does not create particularly stylish period atmospherics. Sets of U.S. or European backdrops look especially overwrought and faux.

Opened: Hong Kong Sept. 29, U.S. Oct. 7
Sales (Hong Kong & Macau): Media Asia Distribution
Production companies: Changchun Film Studio Group LLC, Shanghai Film Studio Group Co Ltd, Hubei Provincial Party Committee Propaganda Dept, Beijing Alnair Culture & Media Co Ltd, Jiangsu Broadcasting Corporation, Jackie Chan International Cinema Cultural Holdings Ltd, Xiaoxiang Film Studio Co Ltd, China City Construction Holding Group Co Ltd, Hebei Film Studio, Tianjin North Film Group, Hillcas (Shanghai) Film Co Ltd, Media Asia Films Ltd, Huaxia Film Distribution Co Ltd, Langfang Guohua Film Base, Nanjing Broadcasting Group

Cast: Winston Chao, Jackie Chan, Li Bingbing, Sun Chun, Joan Chen, Jiang Wu, Angelababy, Hu Ge, Jaycee Chan, Yu Shaoqun, Ning Jing
Director: Jackie Chan
Co-director: Zhang Li
Screenwriters: Wang Xingdong, Chen Baoguang
Producers: Wang Zheben, Wang Tianyun, Bi Shulin
Executive producers: Ren Zhonglun, Liu Lijuan, Guo Bin, Qi Jiangchong, Zhou Pixue, Yu Lian, Shen Xiaoyi, Wang Dafang, Peter Lam, Gu Guoqing
Director of photography: Huang Wei
Production designer: Chen Minzheng
Music: Ding Wei
Editor: Yang Hongyu
No rating, 110 minutes