July 31, 2014
Beginning of the Great Revival – China, 2011
Rumor has it that when Beginning of the Great Revival was initially released in theaters, it appeared on practically every screen in China, making it impossible for moviegoers to see anything else. This is said to have resulted in the film having much more impressive box office numbers than it might otherwise have had and for claims to be made as to its quality and mass appeal. All of this may be true, for the film is clearly cinematic propaganda, reminiscent of such classic Russian films as Battleship Potemkin and The End of St. Petersberg, albeit without their exquisite pacing and groundbreaking camerawork. As for the film’s quality, well you know what they say: Quality is in the eye of the beholder.
Like the 2009 film The Founding of a Republic, Beginning of the Great Revival, directed by Sanping Han and Jianxin Huang, requires an encyclopedic knowledge of both major incidents and important individuals from Chinese history. Significant events - sometimes even entire wars - are referred to in shorts texts that appear over historical vignettes, and names continuously appear to the right or left of important figures even if those figures do not play a role in anything that follows. Miss these, as I did a few times, and you may be momentarily confused. Also like The Founding of the Republic, the film is not for people looking for a critical, in depth analysis of history, specifically the events that followed Emperor Puyi’s abdication of the throne in 1911, and it is not a film that questions the chaotic events that eventually culminated in the creation of China’s current system of government. Rather, the film can be seen as representing the government’s official version of events, and as such, the film is a mild curiosity.
For the first hour, the film’s pacing is practically insufferable. The film cuts to the next scene too rapidly, and rarely is the significance of what we have just seen made clear. Instead, what we see is too often just a parade of seemingly important characters speaking vaguely about what China should and should not be. At other moments, the film shows viewers apparently significant events, yet does not bother to explain what was at stake during them or what was gained from them. For example, in one scene, a character departs for Japan to seek Dr. Sun Yat-sen’s counsel and then returns to wage war. Does this lead to Sun Yat-sen’s return? Does the ensuing military victory have an impact on the larger struggle? The film doesn’t say. It just moves on to the next key conflict.
The second half of the film slows down significantly, and as a result, it is slightly more involving. Most interesting is its portrayal of the May 4th movement. The movement is portrayed as having begun as the result of the actions of two teachers and been carried to fruition by students who took up the cause and went to the streets to make their displeasure known. The students are depicted as being both serious and dedicated to their cause, yet they are also shown to be somewhat extreme. This is demonstrated in their disturbing habit of writing down their grievances in their own blood and their absolutely unwillingness to entertain alternate views. In this sense, they are like many of today’s protesters, many of whom only align themselves with people whose viewpoints match their own and have a hard time hearing the opposition.
In fact, the students often seem on the verge of violence, especially during scenes in which they surround and confront professors that have publicly disagreed with their tactics. At one point, the film shows them attacking the home of officials whom they blame for enabling Japan to occupy Shandong, and it is unclear exactly what they intend to do with the official and his wife if they succeed in capturing them. During the scene, the young students plead with soldiers them to recognize their commonality and not attack them. They insist that they represent the entire Chinese population, and they call on the soldiers to assist them in their efforts. Scenes like this one made me recall the sentiments expressed at the end of Battleship Potemkin, yet there was less of a sense of satisfaction in them, perhaps because they do not immediately restore order and calm. This is the beginning of the storm, not a sign of its impending conclusion.
The film also functions as an origin of sorts for the man who would later hold the moniker chairman, Mao Zedong, played by Ye Liu. Here, he is a young man, full of questions, discovering the plights of the people and formulating his own political beliefs. This involves a great deal of discussion with his change-minded professors and a lot of reading about the rebellions and political systems of other countries. Here, his rise is more cinematic than realistic, full of short moments of excitement and drive, but void of any in depth exploration. Sadly, the film does not examine just what made him so charismatic that he would emerge as leader above everyone else at that time.
Viewers know the conclusions that Mao, his teachers, and his fellow students ultimately come to in advance, and many scenes in which they discuss China’s future end with characters asking or being asked deep philosophical questions and then staring into the camera as if contemplating ideas that are beyond words. There are too many of these moments, and instead of creating suspense, they grow increasingly tedious. There is also a subplot involving Mao and his courtship of the woman he eventually married which begins promising, yet is unfortunately underdeveloped. As portrayed in the film, they spent their time together doing nothing more than reading and formulating new political theories. Romance was set aside, as the film portrays it, for the betterment of the country.
The film boasts a cast on some of the most famous actors and actresses from Hong Kong and China. Yun-Fat Chow has a short, but memorable role as Yuan Shikai, the general who tried as hard as he could to become emperor. Other A-list actors appear for a few short moments and then disappear completely before you have time to recognize them. In fact, the cast list on IMDB is a rather remarkable who’s who of famous people, many of whom I hadn’t even realized were in the film. One actor I did recognize, though, was Taiwanese American pop star/actor Leehom Wang, who plays Lo Chia-lun, and his presence stirred mixed feelings in me. I can understand Wang’s interest in expanding his fan base and ensuring his ability to tour and make films in China, but it is an open question whether he should have agreed to appear in this particular film.
In the end, Beginning of the Great Revival is a version of history told at lightning speed. It is incomplete and one-sided, as well as being rife with cliché-filled dialogue concerning the nobility of the students’ struggles and the dishonor of those who stand in their way. The film even ends with a rather rosy epilogue about China’s future. In short, the film is clearly meant for a domestic audience, and it is doubtful that it will have much appeal outside of that market. However, towards the end of the film, a curious event happens that made me reflect upon the often ironic nature of history. In the scene, a small group of students sit around a table and draft what is essentially a political platform. The scene itself is as exciting as watching molasses drop, yet it fascinates nonetheless because, you see, the students actually take a vote. Imagine that. (on DVD and Blu-ray)