China Lion // 2011 // 124 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Josh Rode (Retired) // January 28th, 2012
Republic is a must, demanded by the people. Yet in a mere six years we've already had two emperors.
Filmed to "commemorate the 90th anniversary of the Communist Party," Beginning of the Great Revival and its companion film The Founding of a Republic were sanctioned by the Chinese government, in an effort to get the youth of China to do something other than look online for anti-government websites. Both films are chockfull of China's biggest names -- Chow Yun Fat, John Woo, Andy Lau, Bingbing Fan; the list goes on. And despite having numerous action stars, the action is minimal; this film is all talk.
After thousands of years of dynastic rule, Sun Yat-sen led a revolution that was meant to install a democratic state in China. Since not everyone agreed with his plan, civil war sprang up again and again in the years that followed, as different people attempted to wrest control for themselves. Finally, a group of idealistic students grabbed their copies of "The Communist Manifesto" and formed a party dedicated to the proposition that it is possible to create a government run by the people, not by the elite. Ninety years later, the results speak for themselves.
A lot of scorn has been tossed in the path of Beginning of the Great Revival because of its source and unapologetically pro-Communist slant. Historical context gives Western audiences a lot of ironic foibles to laugh about, as long speeches are delivered on censorship, elitism, and the plight of the downtrodden masses. But viewed purely as a movie-going experience, the ideological issues are irrelevant. This isn't the first biased film ever made, and it certainly won't be the last. It's the filmmakers' story, and they can say whatever they want.
The problem with Beginning of the Great Revival isn't in its message, it's in the disjointed way this message is presented. Each scene begins with the date, the place, and a summary of what the scene is about. At first, I assumed this was just to get through all the things that led up to the actual story, but it turns out this is the story; the scene introductions continue throughout the entire film. Instead of a continuous narrative, it feels like a series of loosely connected vignettes featuring some of the same characters. Since each segment is at most ten minutes long, there's no time to delve into the details of any of them. Several outstanding story ideas are peppered throughout the film, which fails tries to tell each and every one of them in two hours. Impossible.
It's too bad, because a lot of excellent work went to waste. The individual scenes look nice, with detailed set and costume designs. And other than a few unnecessary slow-motion dramatic moments, the direction and camerawork are exceptional, especially in the mob scenes.
The performances are, for the most part, great. Some of the speeches go on a bit long, but neither the passion of the speakers nor the response of the crowd feels forced or contrived. Chow Yun Fat (The Replacement Killers) stands out as warlord Yuan Shikai, who attempts to reinstate dynastic rule (with himself as Emperor). Peiqi Liu (Shadow Magic) steals every scene he's in with the under-explored part of teacher Ku Hung-ming. The key role of Mao Zedong is underplayed a bit too much by Liu Ye (Curse of the Golden Flower); in his hands, the future leader of the country comes across as a reserved sycophant with little outward passion for his cause.
The standard definition 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen picture has some minor defects and grain, especially in darker scenes. The colors are balanced, with good saturation. The 5.1 surround sound is likewise adequate, with moderate ambient use of the surrounds but not much bass response. Except for a few lines of dialogue with a Frenchman (spoken, for whatever reason, in heavily-accented English instead of French), everyone speaks in Mandarin Chinese. The subtitles are on the small side, but are clear enough and give ample time for reading. There are no extras.
Propaganda issues aside, Beginning of the Great Revival boasts loads of star power, detailed sets, great acting, good cinematography...all of it undone by biting off more than it can even fit in its mouth. This film needs to be twenty hours long for it to work.
Guilty of talking with its mouth full.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: China Lion
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Mandarin)
Running Time: 124 Minutes
Release Year: 2011
MPAA Rating: Not Rated