Centering on a period skipped over by most texts and films about Chinese nation-making hero Sun Yat-sen, “Before the Sunrise” (aka “Road to Dawn”) turns the spotlight on the medico-turned-revolutionary’s relationship with longtime assistant and “second wife” Chen Cuifen. Set during Sun’s 1910 exile in Penang, Malaysia, well-appointed mix of romance and politics is a respectful and respectable effort that has a rough shot at specialist export outside Asia.
Crucial task of making the central character heroic and human is admirably carried off by Winston Chao. Taiwanese thesp (“The Wedding Banquet”) previously played Sun in Mabel Cheung’s “The Soong Sisters” (1997), as well as in a TV series, and delivers a finely shaded interpretation of Sun in one of his darkest hours.
After giving general viewers sufficient info to get a grip on basics, pic opens with Sun arriving alone in British-controlled Penang to raise funds for another try at toppling China’s Qing dynasty. Despondent after 20 years in exile and nine failed attempts, his plea for cash falls on the deaf ears of a Chinese business cartel headed by opium trader Xu Boheng (Wang Jiancheng).
Holding back Chen’s arrival longer than seems necessary, the screenplay sets up a busy series of side issues. Dominant female in the early section is Xu’s daughter, Danrong (Malaysian-born Chinese thesp Angelica Lee), a staunch Sun supporter who rails against her father’s plan to have her marry the dweeby son of a British power broker. Feisty girl’s true love is Luo Zhaolin (Zhao Zheng), a jealous schoolteacher who poses as Sun’s new friend while secretly engaged as a Chinese government assassin.
These interesting strands, drawn partly from fiction, get a factual core to revolve around when Chen (Wu Yue) eventually enters the picture. Tenderly written and performed heart of the drama deals with her painful realization that 18 years on the road with Sun have left her disillusioned and fearing for both their lives.
Minus some stiffly scripted passages in which Sun preaches worker’s rights to local laborers and inspires Xu & Co. to open their purses, Hong Kong helmer Derek Chiu (“Mr. Sardine”) keeps firm control on perfs and interconnecting storylines as events draw toward a bittersweet conclusion.
Filmed on many of the actual locations, brightly shot pic is a dream for any buff of colonial architecture. Costuming and decor are gorgeous where required and sensibly restrained elsewhere. Only bum tech note is a lackluster orchestral score that sounds like library music.