Beginning of the Great Revival: Film Review

A worthy history lesson on the founding of the Chinese Communist Party with only partially entertaining aspects.

Smaller in historical scope than its predecessor, hence less grandstanding and more intimate in tone, the Chinese propaganda movie co-directed by Han Sanping and Huang Jianxin is laced with a soupcon of romanticism in its portrait of Mao Zedong as a young political theorist.

SHANGHAI – Beginning of the Great Revival, also titled as Founding of a Party, is the prequel to Founding of a Republic (2009). Both co-directed by Han Sanping (Chairman of state-owned China Film Group) and Huang Jianxin, they chronicle the struggle and rise of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). While Republic traces how the CCP won the civil war; Beginning explains why it was formed in the first place. Smaller in historical scope than its predecessor, hence less grandstanding and more intimate in tone, Beginning is laced with a soupcon of romanticism in its portrait of Mao Zedong as a young political theorist.

Republic stormed the box office gaining just under $64.9 million nationwide. The same population also flocked to see Beginning, spending $17.9 million in just five days. Overseas release, including a North American bow cannot hope for such an enthusiastic response.

To any audience unschooled in Chinese history, the plot of Republic boils down to seemingly endless rounds of meetings. In Beginning, there are less meetings but more lectures and speechifying. Han and Huang made these two national propaganda films chic for its domestic audience by parading a galaxy of stars in glorified cameos. But if you can’t recognize any of them, or come armed with a “Who’s Who” of Chinese revolutionary history, you’ll most likely feel lost by the barrage of faces and names appearing as title cards.

The film begins in 1912, a year after the Qing Dynasty was overthrown by Sun Yat Sen’s Nationalist Party, the Kuomintang (KMT). The first act traces President and warlord Yuan Shikai’s (Chow Yun Fat) ambitions to crown himself Emperor, thus defying the new KMT government and the country’s democratic aspirations. Even though this period has the strongest dramatic momentum, it still takes 40 minutes of background exposition before climaxing in one impressive battle scene in Yunnan, when pro-republic General Cai E (Andy Lau) famously defeats Yuan’s 80,000-strong army with 20,000 men.

The second act delineates the political environment following Yuan’s abdication, which leaves a power vacuum in the wake of growing social unrest and looming Japanese aggression. It is a loose scramble of consciousness-raising moments during which various patriotic and intellectual parties ponder, bond or challenge each other over ideologies applicable to China’s condition.

The inertia of this long-winded segment is finally dispelled when their zeal finds expression in the May Fourth student movement in 1919. The highly-charged crowd scenes in which dissidents clash with authorities are staged with visual flair, conveying an exhilarating sense of self-empowerment which is the essence of revolution.

Credit is also due to the structured screenplay by Dong Zhe, Guo Junli and Huang Xin for unobtrusively joining the dots and lines of Mao Zedong’s (Liu Ye) early life to the activities of the CCP’s founding members such as Chen Duxiu, Li Dachao, Hu Shi (Daniel Wu), as well as the disparate paths of his later comrades Zhou Enlai (Aloys Chen), Zhu De and Deng Xiaoping, with all this unfolding against a colossal canvass of historical events.

Given that the legion of stars come and go as swiftly as celebs flit between catwalk and parties in Robert Altman’s Pret-a-Porter, the only engaging and fully developed story arc remains that of Mao. Admittedly, his modest start as a young patriot from provincial Changsha and his intellectually formative years as an assistant librarian at the University of Beijing are not exactly the stuff of engrossing drama. But tall, slender and pensive-looking Liu Ye cuts a cool figure, and his slow-brewing courtship of his professor Yang Changji’s daughter Kaihui (Li Qin), set mostly in the library’s hallowed halls, have the ingredients of a nostalgic campus romance.

The final leg adds genre elements to beef up the finale with a cloak-and-dagger subplot involving two Soviet agents. The all-important official founding of the party trails off into a mystical haze of tableaux vivants.

Production values are lavish with minute attention to period details.

Opened: June 15 in China; June 24 in North America (China Lion)
Production companies: China Film Group
Cast: Liu Ye, Li Qin, Chow Yun Fat, Andy Lau, Feng Yuanzheng, Zhang Jiayi, Daniel Wu, Aloys Chen, John Woo
Directors: Han Sanping, Huang Jianxin
Screenwriters: Dong Zhe, Guo Junli, Huang Xin
Producer: Han Sanping
Executive producers: Ma Zhengquiang, Gao Chengsheng
Director of photography: Zhao Xiaoshi
Production and costume designers: Yi Zhenzhou, Wang Wenxun
Music: Shu Nan, Ma Shangyou
Editor: Derek Hui
Sales: China Film Promotion International
No rating, 125 minutes