Thursday, February 10, 2011

Review – The Founding of a Republic

February 10, 2011

The Founding of a Republic – China, 2009

To properly understand The Founding of a Republic, Han Sanping and Huang Jianxin’s 2009 historical reenactment of the events that led up to the convening of the first Chinese People’s Political Conservative Conference in 1949, one would be wise to know a great deal about the people in China who were in both politics and the military at that time. It also helps to be a speed reader, for the names, ranks, and political parties of these characters appear of the screen for what seems like only a split second before they suddenly disappear, and it doesn’t help that often more than one person’s information appears at the same time. For those viewers knowledgeable of today’s stars from Hong Kong and China, the film will also be an entertaining exercise in spotting the likes of Jet Li, Jackie Chan, Donnie Yen, Vivian Wu, Zhang Ziyi, and Kefan Cao. I suspect though for the average viewer – i.e. someone who is not an expert in Chinese historical figures, not a speed reader, and not an avid star gazer – The Founding of a Republic will prove to be quite a challenge to sit through.

The biggest problem with the film is that its makers were simply too ambitious. Instead of making a tight, concise picture about the differences between the two great men vying to lead China post-World War II, Han and Huang cast such a wide net that the film lacks focus and intensity. The film is made up of too many quick scenes that seem to be leading somewhere only for the most important events, such as the Kuomintang’s breaking of the 10/10 agreements, to be summarized briefly during short interludes. Apparently, what’s more important are concise, one or two minute scenes in which characters hint at which side their loyalty lies with but don’t say it directly. For example, one scene ends with a reporter asking what a member of one of the opposition parties would do if another person were in charge of the KMT. The scene ends with a close-up of the official’s conflicted expression, but no answer. A quick cut prevents us from seeing the equally awkward exchange that likely concluded the interview.

The film has moments that fascinate and those that frustrate. In one particularly interesting scene, we see Chiang Kai-shek’s arrival at a conference from the view of the passenger’s seat of the luxury car he is being driven in. It allows us to see the rows and rows of applauding politicians and dignitaries that line his route. Later, the action is repeated, only this time the group of supporters has dwindled considerably. There’s also a nice scene towards the end of the film in which Mao learns both the power and the folly of his anti-capitalist/anti-business message. However, I doubt he learned this because he was unable to find a pack of cigarettes so early in the morning. On the other hand, there are also plenty of scenes of characters talking military strategy that go nowhere (the fighting take place off screen for the most part) and too many conversations during which characters are intentionally vague even though no one is around them. Often a scene like this ends just as something important is about to be said. This technique may work once or twice in a film, but do to it too often, which Han and Huang do, and it becomes rather annoying.

The result of having too many characters, too much editing, and too much scope is a film that never truly gets going, and this is unfortunate because the film includes two of the most interesting characters from twentieth century history: Mao Zedong and Chiang Kai-shek, who the film points out are both disciples of Dr. Sun Yat-sen. Had the film focused on them more, I suspect it would have been much stronger. In the film, Mao, well played by Guoqiang Tang, is portrayed as a man whose quiet leadership just happens to have been the right for the time in which he is living. In fact, he’s portrayed as being extremely devoted to the institution of democracy. We see him consulting with his fellow CPC members when there are decisions to be made, and only once in the film does he issue what we would consider an order. However, it’s clear that the people who fight alongside him recognize him as being in command. So too do the average people he comes in contact with. He proves so inspiring that people request the opportunity to meet him, a request he appears to be eager to acquiesce to. In one scene, when Mao gives a man a cigarette, the man doesn’t want to light it. He’d rather keep it as a souvenir. Mao simply smiles and gives the man the rest of the pack. As depicted in the film, Mao was a man who recognized the value of winning over the people. With them on his side, he seemed to know that victory would ultimately be his.

On the other side of the conflict, we have Chiang Kai-shek (Guoli Zhang), a character that is portrayed in a rather surprisingly sympathetic light. He is portrayed as a man deeply troubled by the events that are unfolding around him. Whereas Mao’s strategy in the film is to win over the people, Chiang’s seems to be focused initially on winning the war militarily. When that doesn’t work, he tries to win over opposition party leaders by offering them positions of power. In one pivotal scene, he even appears to offer his opposition rule over half of China, which turns out to be a very grave error. When confronted by his son with the reality that businessmen close to him are hording goods and reaping the benefits that come with inflated prices, he presents his son with a difficult dilemma: tackle corruption in the KMT and lose the party, don’t tackle the corruption and lose the people. In the end, the elder Chiang makes the wrong decision.

Had the film focused more on Mao, Chiang, and the people closest to them, it would have been intriguing from start to finish. However, it doesn’t. Instead, we get scene after scene in which characters wonder what side Zhang Lan and other opposition party leaders are on, endless discussions on whether Sun Yat-sun’s widow will end her unofficial neutrality, and unnecessary scenes involving occasionally bizarre U.S. and Russian officials. And did we really need to see Party officials debating what flag design to use and whether to update the national anthem? Sure, these decisions were important historically, but they don’t make for particularly riveting cinema. I suppose this sentiment summarizes the film well as a whole – Fascinating history, mediocre film. (on DVD and Blu-ray in Region 3)

2 and a half stars

*The Founding of a Republic is in Mandarin with white English subtitles. The subtitles are occasionally hard to read.

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