BEGINNING OF THE GREAT REVIVAL Review
In the centre of Tiananmen Square, in Beijing, stands the Chairman Mao Memorial Hall, where Mao Zedong's body is on display to the general public. Every day the queue stretches hundreds of metres across the square as people flock from around the world to file past Mao's corpse, whether out of respect or simply morbid curiosity. Watching BEGINNING OF THE GREAT REVIVAL, China Film Group's cinematic endeavour marking the 90th Anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party of China, is like watching China's celebrity elite doing exactly this. However, rather than literally processing past the Chairman's prostrate body, they have each taken a small role in this grand reconstruction of his defining years. Over 100 of the biggest names in Chinese Cinema make an appearance in the film, which charts the unstable years between the end of World War 1 and the Party's inception in 1921, and while in some cases, genuine respect is being paid to the father of their home nation, the cynic inside me knows that for some actors, their presence is merely an insurance that they will continue to find gainful employment within the People's Republic. Like kids in church on Christmas morning - they're only in attendance under threat of no presents.
In 1912, China was in disarray after the fall of the Qing Dynasty and abdication of the last emperor, Puyi. The provisional government, set up by Dr. Sun Yat Sen and quickly commandeered by Yuan Shikai, itself fell apart upon Yuan's death in 1915, ushering in the Warlord Era that saw no central leadership in the country for many years. At the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, German territories in Shandong were transferred to the Japanese rather than being returned to China, prompting outrage that culminated in the student demonstrations known as the May Fourth Movement. Soon, Mao Zedong and others had galvanized this growing dissatisfaction among China's youth to their advantage and in 1921 drew up the CPC manifesto to unite the people and eventually form a proletariat republic.
Those less than familiar with Chinese history aren't going to be much the wiser after watching BEGINNING OF THE GREAT REVIVAL. The script is poorly written, packed full of superfluous characters and seemingly picks dramatic moments at random, skipping over months of conflict and demonstrations in favour of exploring Mao's courtship of his second wife, Yang Kaihui. To point the finger of blame on the three credited scriptwriters is probably unfair, as this was clearly a screenplay fashioned by the upper echelons of the CPC, pored over for months or perhaps even years, to ensure that the proper representation of the facts was being dramatized and each noteworthy historical figure is credited accordingly.
Each time a new character appears onscreen, his or her name appears alongside the most-likely recognizable actor portraying them. However, before you've had time to commit their name to memory, they have disappeared off-screen and most times will never be mentioned again. Captions also pop up repeatedly informing us of a conflict or power struggle which the writers have chosen to skip past or gloss over in favour of spending quality screen time with Mao and his friends as they attempt to improve their understanding of Marxism.
Much of the film's supposed commercial appeal is its all-star cast, but fans of Nick Cheung, Simon Yam and Zhou Xun beware, look down at your popcorn and you will probably miss their entire performance. I don't recall Tony Leung Kar-fai saying anything at all during his appearance, yet there he is on the poster. In fact, the film's marketing department would have you believe that Chow Yun Fat and Andy Lau were the real leads here, but between them they clock in an accumulated screen time of about 15 minutes - all in the first half-hour of this lumbering, two-hour ordeal.
Liu Ye reportedly gained 10kg to play Mao Zedong, but is still confined to a hefty padded suit in order to approximate the actual size of the future Chairman. Liu portrays Mao as a humble, yet earnest and dedicated idealist, wanting nothing more than what is best for the common people, but it's unlikely he was given any scope to interpret the iconic Communist in any other way. Make no mistake, BEGINNING OF THE GREAT REVIVAL is a film made by the Party, about the Party, in order to congratulate itself on retaining power within a one-party system for over half a decade, while further fanning the flames of national pride within its people. This is shameless propaganda passing itself off as history, and is about as fair and balanced as a Leni Riefensthal film.
The film is being released internationally this weekend, including in Hong Kong and the USA, but presumably will be watched solely by Chinese expatriates feeling a little homesick. After all, who in the USA, where a significant percentage of the population fears its own President is a Socialist, is interested in watching a Chinese propaganda film? And more importantly, should they? I'm not suggesting that people aren't interested in China, but rather that the film presents a highly skewed perspective of the events it dramatizes. What's more, it isn't very well made.
While the production values of the film are respectably high, with finely crafted costumes and lovingly recreated sets complimented at times by rather beautiful cinematography (the film is even screening in IMAX in some parts of China), BEGINNING OF THE GREAT REVIVAL is poorly written and excruciatingly dull. It has been so carefully drafted, while being packed full of characters it spends no time developing, that in the end there is nothing and nobody to engage with emotionally, save for the Chinese people as a single, swarming entity emblazoned with the face of Chairman Mao. And clearly that is entirely the intention. China is the heroine of the film, the beautiful, nurturing motherland, whose only important representative is its glorious leader.
There are many ways to mark an important anniversary, and absolutely nothing wrong with commemorating significant moments in your country's history by producing an epic motion picture recreating the event. But is it really too much to ask that the film be honest and truthful, or at the very least, moderately entertaining? If not, then why not just build an outrageously large monument instead and save the film critics of the world the trouble of fact-checking their Chinese history.
Beginning of the Great Revival
- Sanping Han
- Jianxin Huang
- Zhe Dong
- Jung Li Guong
- Xin Huang
- Bingbing Fan
- Yun-Fat Chow
- Daniel Wu