Friday, October 7, 2011

1911 Revolution: Tedious history lesson

1911: Revolution (2011) • View trailer for 1911: Revolution
2.5 stars. Rating: R, for war violence
By Derrick Bang

Although quite emphatically a nation-changing war drama writ large, 1911: Revolution is advertised with star Jackie Chan’s dignified image dominating all poster art. Additionally, much is being made of the fact that this is his 100th movie.
Having witnessed and survived another failed uprising by revolutionary forces
overwhelmed by the superior weaponry of the corrupt Qing dynasty's so-called
New Army, military strategist Huang Xing (Jackie Chan) and his wife, Xu
Zhonghan (Lee Bing Bing) contemplate the horrific loss of life and wonder
what the next step possibly could be.

This sets up certain expectations, particularly in this country, where Chan is known for his balletic Hong Kong martial-arts flicks and his more recent American action comedies. Indeed, Chan is his own cinematic sub-genre; he’s as unique to martial-arts movies as Fred Astaire was to dance films in the 1930s and ’40s.

And, like Astaire, Chan has turned to more serious roles as he has aged. To his credit, he handles such parts reasonably well ... but fans need to understand that 1911: Revolution is not graced with his signature athletic prowess. (Well, he gets one quick skirmish; I guess he couldn’t help himself.)

Chan and Li Zhang share directing credits on this film, the latter debuting in that role after a successful career as a cinematographer on historical dramas such as The Banquet and the two-part Red Cliff series. Zhang’s attempted transition is clumsy, to say the least.

Although 1911: Revolution clearly is a labor of love, with a huge cast and an ambitious historical tapestry, Zhang’s style is simply wrong. This is a very serious story — the 1911 Xinhai Revolution, which led to the fall of the 250-year-old Qing Dynasty and the (sadly brief) rise of the first Republic of China — but the tone here is operatic, the performances baroque and often overstated.

The realistically grim battlefield sequences are at odds with the maneuvering and deal-making taking place behind closed doors, particularly all machinations involving the Qing Empress Dowager Longyu (Joan Chen) and her imperial court ministers. These characters are so exaggerated — with over-the-top “acting” designed for the back row of the second balcony — that they’re essentially held up as figures of ridicule.

(Longyu speaks for emperor-to-be Puyi, still a young child during these events; to put this into cinematic context, Puyi is the title character of Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1987 Oscar favorite, The Last Emperor.)

Longyu and her ministers were corrupt and despicable, to be sure, but they were no less dangerous; mocking them undercuts the difficulties that faced Sun Yat-sen (Winston Chao), as he attempted to plead China’s potential as an emerging republic to doubtful investors in Europe and the United States. Similarly, Longyu and her ministers are responsible for the thousands of lives lost as various early Chinese uprisings sputtered and died after facing the Qing court’s massive New Army.

Tone, however, isn’t this film’s primary problem. Screenwriters Wang Xingdong and Chen Bauguang bite off far more than they can chew, introducing primary, secondary and even incidental characters at a furious pace that feels like a CliffsNotes version of a massive Chinese history textbook. There’s simply no way for a casual American viewer to determine which of these many individuals — some seen only briefly — deserves our attention.

Many are important to Chinese history because they’re among the “72 martyrs” of the Guangzhou uprising that opens this film. One senses that Xingdong and Bauguang want to name-check as many of the 72 as possible: however briefly, confusingly and pointlessly.

Consider one of the first scenes, which shows a shackled but proud woman, as she stumbles through a crowd toward her execution. Given the way Zhang’s film bounces back and forth through time, it’s almost impossible to place this woman within the context of the primary story. Only after later research did I verify that she’s Qiu Jin, an anti-Qing feminist, writer and revolutionary who was put to death in 1907, after a failed early uprising.

Mere minutes from losing her life, Qiu Jin defiantly insists that revolution will come one day. The scene then shifts to late 1910, and the nascent beginnings of Sun Yat-sen’s eventually successful revolution (although calling it “his” revolution is, as well, a gross oversimplification).

To make matters worse, each new face is accompanied by a text block, giving identity and brief description; these blocks frequently appear alongside much larger paragraphs of on-screen text, intended to put events in context and help bridge the various chapters of this uprising. The text is small and white, often superimposed over light-colored backdrops; in short, it’s hard to read.

It’s also seriously distracting, since we American viewers must take in all this verbiage in addition to reading the dialogue subtitles, which emerge quite rapidly; this film has a lot of talking.

In short, it’s hard to watch this film — and appreciate Zhang’s genuine skill at staging large-scale battlefield sequences — when faced with so much to read.

Mostly, though, Zhang fails to make us care. If he encourages overacting by various supporting players, he draws no emotional power at all from his three primary heroes: Sun Yat-sen; Huang Xing (Chan), the military strategist who survived countless battlefield skirmishes and eventually became Sun Yat-sen’s closest advistor; and Xu Zhonghan (Lee Bing Bing), an early advocate for women’s rights who briefly accompanied Huang Xing into exile in 1910 — following the failed Guangzhou Uprising — and then returned with him, in 1911, to participate in the ultimately successful revolution.

As another example of Xingdong and Bauguang’s clumsy scripting shorthand, Huang Xing and Xu Zhonghan initially (in 1910) are told to pretend to be husband and wife, to help cover their insurrectionist activities. Based on Chan and Bing’s fleeting expressions, this appears to cause them discomfort. Yet when next we see these two, they’re married; flashbacks, later in the film, allude to their now-inseparable bond. OK, fine ... but this happened when, precisely?

Ironically, we get a much better sense of the fourth key piece on this complex chessboard: Yuan Shikai (Sun Chun), the crafty general, warlord and politician brought out of forced retirement by the Qing court, in order to lead the Beiyang branch of the New Army and quash the uprising. But Shikai, fully aware of the Qing court’s increasingly precarious position, clandestinely plays both sides, with the intention of eventually seizing power himself.

Chun displays all the personality, shrewdness and character depth lacking in every other performance. He makes a great schemer, and he’s therefore much more interesting than anybody else. Too bad he’s a villain, of sorts; Shikai eventually succeeds in his goal, his ambition and cunning successfully splintering Sun Yat-sen’s fragile alliance among China’s numerous provinces, in the wake of the boy emperor’s abdication.

But that comes later (albeit not much later); this film actually concludes as Sun Yat-sen becomes the new Chinese republic’s first president, intending to hold the position only long enough to see the Qing dynasty fully ended.

This, too, is frustrating. This massive story, however poorly told by Xingdong and Bauguang, ends just as things get interesting on the historical stage. Almost immediately, China then would be plunged into a failed second revolution, a so-called “warlord era” and a civil war before the 1949 communist uprising.

Sun Yat-sen’s grand, noble political philosophy — the “Three Principles of the People,” intended to acknowledge and encourage nationalism, democracy and the people’s livelihood — would succeed only briefly. His final years must have been bitterly frustrating, before he died of liver cancer in 1925. Huang Xing didn’t even live that long; he died in 1916, a few months after Shikai ... who had proclaimed himself emperor the previous year.

If you’re feeling battered by the sort of information dump that could make high school history class such a slog, that’s pretty much the reaction you’ll have to this film. Although effectively portraying the staggering loss of life during battlefield sequences that evoke Saving Private Ryan and Flags of Our Fathers, the vague back room political maneuvering and ill-defined characters sabotage any chance of engaging our hearts and minds.

Zhang and Chan quite deliberately positioned their film’s release to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Wuchang Uprising, which took place Oct. 10, 1911. Sadly, good intentions do not make a good film. Like so many of the idealistic revolutionaries in this saga, Zhang and Chan can be honored for their intent, but not their execution.

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