Judge William Lee would declare his independence but he's a slave to his mom's roast duck.
When an empire is torn between power and corruption…a revolution begins.
Two noteworthy events of 2011, the 100th anniversary of the Republic of China and the 100th film of Jackie Chan, intersected with the Chinese movie 1911. The historical drama is a transparently patriotic epic in memory of the revolution that reshaped the "sleeping lion" of the Orient. Unfortunately, the movie falters under the weight of its significant milestones. Viewers with knowledge of modern Chinese history may recognize some key individuals in the overcrowded cast list but others will struggle to keep up with the chaotic script.
Facts of the Case
China in 1911 is a land of unrest as the population grows increasingly angry with their imperial rulers. Revolutionaries are plotting across the country while the Empress Longyu (Joan Chen, Mao's Last Dancer) tries to preserve her court's power by securing a loan from foreign banks. After a failed uprising in Guangzhou, Huang Xing (Jackie Chan, Shaolin) narrowly escapes with his life. Meanwhile, Dr. Sun Yat-sen (Winston Chao, Eat Drink Man Woman) is raising money from overseas Chinese in the U.S. to fund the overthrow of the Qing dynasty. When an army division successfully revolts in Wuchang, revolutionary forces are emboldened by the victory. The ensuing civil war will eventually force the abdication of China's Last Emperor, six-year-old Puyi, four months later.
1911, also known as Xinhai Revolution and 1911 Revolution, commemorates a major turning point in China's history that ended more than 2,000 years of dynastic rule. The script is ambitious in its attempt to include so many key national figures and historic moments, but it demands that the viewer already have some knowledge of these events. We're thrust into the action a little late to the party and without much preparation. There are references to how the Qing government has mishandled a situation with the country's railroads but we won't really understand what was at stake and how this generated such resentment among the people.
The movie plays like a catalogue of battle scenes and when it moves to trench warfare it's generally hard to tell one apart from the other. Lengthy graphics (using text that appears very small) are employed to explain the importance and outcomes of many skirmishes. After being treated to such masterful depictions of the battlefield recently from the WWII miniseries The Pacific to the operatic period war drama Red Cliff, the action scenes in 1911 come up short. They're mostly montages of chaos without much sense of geography or strategic movement. In any given battle moment, it's hard to understand which side is winning unless a character says so.
The first major battle of the film, and the most dynamic action set piece, is the failed uprising in Guangzhou. Here, it looks like a ragtag group of students attacking the imperial guards and there's the sense that a lot of these characters will be important players. Yet, just as soon as we see the faces of some prominent actors, their characters are killed. This battle is famous for the "72 martyrs" that are memorialized and, again, it might work well enough for the Chinese history buffs. For me, however, the scene left no impression of who these characters were. In the final moments of the film, some of the martyrs are still referenced in flashbacks but I still had no sense of their contributions aside from being cannon fodder.
The other major battle is the Wuchang revolt and the subsequent long standoff for the town between revolutionary and loyalist forces. The fight for Wuchang might have been enough for a movie of its own but instead it becomes background activity while the movie makes stops in other battlefronts and follows the diplomatic confrontations between Sun Yat-sen and the Qing ministers. Another interesting character is an army officer who is reluctant to join the revolution but is pressed into service by his troops to lead the revolt. He disappears soon after he's introduced (perhaps his demise was announced in a line of text on screen) and his command is taken over by Jackie Chan's character.
Jackie Chan is credited as the film's general director (he's also the producer and executive producer) and Zhang Li (cinematographer for John Woo's Red Cliff) gets the other directorial nod. Chan shows off his hand-to-hand fighting skills in one short scene when he takes down a trio of saboteurs. The fight choreography suits the realistic tone of the movie, which is to say it's not at the level of dazzling physicality that Chan performed in his earlier movies. As revolutionary war hero Huang Xing, Jackie Chan plays serious, and in Mandarin, throughout the movie and he does a fine job.
The entire cast is quite good despite the overwrought script that tries to include too many key moments and force too many meaningful speeches when naturalistic dialogue would work better. Winston Chao (who has played Sun Yat-sen in other productions) looks comfortable as the driven statesman but he has to make a few significant speeches using ham-fisted analogies. Bingbing Li (Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame) is just fine as the nurse who worries about Huang Xing and cries over the bodies of fallen comrades. Her character is also based on a real and beloved revolutionary heroine but her contribution to the events in the movie is marginal.
Taking over as the main bad guy late in the movie is the Qing minister Yuan Shikai (Chun Sun, New Police Story) who plots to take advantage of the domestic strife. Chun Sun finds the right note for playing this schemer, a careful bureaucrat and a ruthless opportunist, making him dangerous but not a caricature of villainy. Too bad the movie doesn't complete his character's story. There are hints that Yuan Shikai will play more of a role in the country's history but that'll be long after the credits roll.
The screenplay narrowly focuses on the last few months of 1911 and that limits the accessibility of this movie. You might enjoy this movie if you already have some familiarity with the events and you're just glad it's been given the big screen treatment. Viewers learning about the birth of the Republic of China for the first time will be frustrated. 1911 joins the action too late to inform viewers of the state of the nation before the fighting begins and the movie ends before we know the immediate fallout of the revolution.
The picture is quite satisfying on this DVD release. Colors are strong and blacks are deep. The image is sharp and clean with no noticeable digital artifacts. The surround audio in original Mandarin (with a few instances of English) is slightly disappointing. The surround channels are put to work in the battle scenes but the rest of the time the soundscape is mostly frontal and somewhat flat. The two-channel stereo alternative gives the voices a bit more presence. An English-language dub version is available in surround and stereo options. Their quality mirrors the Mandarin mixes but with a slightly greater emphasis on the rerecorded dialogue, which I didn't sample for too long because it sounded too unnatural.
Well Go USA Entertainment's two-DVD Collector's Edition contains plenty of supplemental material featuring the actors. Accompanying the movie on Disc One are six deleted scenes, two trailers, and 30 minutes of behind the scenes footage. Disc Two contains three more items, including a further 30 minutes of behind the scenes footage observing the crew as they stage various action and stunt scenes. A six-minute interview with actress Li Bingbing isn't very interesting. When she says, "What a tedious job to shoot this movie!" (according to the subtitles) I suspect something is lost in the translation. Finally, the Hong Kong Press Conference where Jackie Chan, Winston Chao and Li Bingbing answer questions for 30 minutes is also on view here. Alas, no historical information like biographies or timelines are included.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The abundant name-dropping of battles and revolutionary leaders does provide a basic introduction to this historic moment. After watching this movie, viewers are equipped to do further research to make sense of the dots that are only vaguely connected. Wikipedia's article on the Xinhai Revolution was especially illuminating to me and it was made easier with a few actors' faces to put to the names.
This is a serviceable action movie if you're not too concerned about the historical details and the huge cast of characters connecting. Jackie Chan acquits himself nicely in a serious performance but it's not an especially memorable role. It's worth a rental but with some reservations.
Failing to be revolutionary, the movie is guilty as charged.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Well Go USA
• Deleted Scenes
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