Dirs: Huang Jianxin, Han Sanping. China. 2011. 124mins


A propagandistic telling of the origins of the Chinese Communist Party on occasion of its 90th anniversary, Beginning Of The Great Revival encompasses war, crumbling social institutions, societal upheaval, melodrama and plenty of political backbiting and gamesmanship, all in a package to be perhaps more admired than enjoyed. The film’s technical accomplishment and narrative scope win out, by slim margin, over plotting that is stodgy and characterisations that are thin and functionally sketched.

Production value is extremely high.

Directed by Jianxin Huang and Sanping Han, and produced by the state-owned China Film Group for around $11 million, the film serves as a companion piece to 2009’s blockbuster The Founding Of A Republic, which detailed the Chinese Civil War and the 1949 founding of the People’s Republic of China. Known as The Founding Of A Party in mainland China, Beginning Of The Great Revival should outstrip its predecessor’s $65 million homeland gross.

Overseas returns — it’s opening in major metropolitan markets in the United States and Canada as part of distributor China Lion’s exclusive deal with AMC Theatres — will obviously be far more modest, though the style and scope of the movie will attract some foreign arthouse patrons, in addition to Stateside ethnic minorities.

The movie details the historic events surrounding what is referred to as the Chinese Revolution — the period from 1911 to 1921 when Sun Yat-sen overthrew the Qing Dynasty and planted the roots of what has become modern day China’s Communist government. The story charts the beginnings of the country’s most influential first-generation leaders, including ambitious warlord Yuan Shikai (Chow Yun-Fat), who undertakes an attempt revive the Chinese monarchy.

When word leaks out of Yuan acceding to neighboring Japan’s 21 demands in exchange for foreign support of his ambitions, it stirs dissent, led by Tsai Ao (Andy Lau), the pro-Republic governor of Yunnan. Yuan abdicates his throne, leaving a power vacuum and much social unrest. Against the backdrop, the film charts the development and political maturation of Mao Zedong (Liu Ye) and later Communist comrades like Zhou Enlai (Aloys Chen) and Deng Xiaoping (Wen Zhang), among others, culminating in the sweeping student uprisings of May 4, 1919.

If one accepts or shrugs off the robust subjectivity herein, there is a fair amount of reward to be found in the grandeur of Beginning’s telling. As did its state-sanctioned predecessor, the film features a cast of China’s biggest box office stars, many of whom apparently waived their fees to appear. Their appearances go a long way toward establishing and maintaining the sense of an important story being told.

Still, the screenplay, by Zhe Dong, Junli Guo and Xin Huang, seems to be trying to serve too many masters. It’s rife with arm-waving speechifying, but never really digs into, in a substantive way, the average life of the proletariat that the eventual Chinese Communist Party claims to wish to bring uplift.

There is little concrete sense of the omnipresent foreign threats to China so often discussed, and by and large the movie sweeps the cult of personality surrounding Mao Zedong under the rug, in favor of a friendlier telling of the party’s founding. Crucially, the characters all come across as two-dimensional as well, devoid of the sort of foibles or details that would enrich a portrait of their historic undertaking.

Production value is extremely high. Various war scenes are capably staged, and the costume and production design are each transportive. The cinematography is agreeably lush for certain outdoor segments, but also makes deft use of lighting and various film stocks to mark shifts in time and place.

Production company: China Film Group

Domestic distribution: China Lion

Executive producers: Hongshi Lu, Ma Zhengquiang, Gao Chengsheng

Producer: Han Sanping

Screenplay: Zhe Dong, Junli Guo and Xin Huang

Cinematography: Zhao Xiaoshi

Editor: Xu Hongyu

Production designer: Yi Zhenzhou

Costume designer: Wang Wenxum

Music: Shu Nan and Ma Shangyou

Website: ChinaLionEntertainment.com

Main cast: Liu Ye, Chow Yun-Fat, Qin Li, Andy Lau, Dong Jie, Chen Chang, Daniel Wu, Aloys Chen, Wen Zhang, Zhang Jiayi, John Woo