By far the biggest of a slew of pics celebrating New China’s 60th anni, “The Founding of a Republic” is a cannily assembled, smoothly made chunk of political filmmaking. Perhaps realizing that few Chinese would line up nowadays for a regular “official” production, China Film Group topper Han Sanping (who shares the main helming credit with Huang Jianxin) has turned “Founding” into the most lavish star-spotting game in mainland cinema history, marbled with a few Hong Kong cameos for good measure. Pic isn’t likely to get Western distribution anytime soon, but on several levels is worthy of attention.
“Founding,” which swamped local screens Sept. 17, has officially passed Feng Xiaogang’s 2008 romantic comedy “If You Are the One” as the biggest grossing Chinese film ever, with a whopping 334 million yuan ($49 million) in its first 20 days. The film could surpass “Titanic” as China’s all-time B.O. champ by the end of its run, though local spy whodunit “The Message” started taking over screens in late September. In Hong Kong, “Founding” took a surprising $700,000 in its first five days.
Traversing most major (and a few minor) events in the gradual victory of the communists over the nationalists from August 1945 to October 1949, the pic adopts the usual format of datelined scenes, with characters introduced via captions. However, this time the fast-forward format — largely consisting of men meeting in rooms — is leavened by a fair amount of light comedy and actors who go beyond merely spouting historical background and political standpoints.
Most notably, a genuine dynamic emerges between communist leader Mao Zedong (Tang Guoqiang) and KMT head Chiang Kai-shek (Zhang Guoli). Seemingly reflecting the contempo detente between China and Taiwan, Chiang is treated as more than a simple villain. An early scene of the two meeting in Chongqing to talk terms after the end of the Sino-Japanese War in 1945 stresses that both were disciples of Sun Yat-sen, who set up the country’s first republic in 1911.
The film could be the first of its kind to get a release in Taiwan — early next year — if statements by the Taiwan government are to be believed. However, some scenes — especially a late one in which Chiang confesses to an officer (Andy Lau) that “the KMT has been ruined by our own hands” — may prove too bitter a pill for even the island’s current KMT administration to swallow.
Tang, the latest in a huge number of lookalikes to Mao, has a twinkly-eyed slyness that chimes well with Zhang’s excellent perf as the unbending Generalissimo Chiang, who slowly realizes he’s losing the game to a player who’s even smarter than he is. On a secondary level, Xu Qing, as Sun’s widow Soong Ching-ling, and Vivian Wu, as Chiang’s wife Soong May-ling, powerfully portray the ice-cold ruthlessness of two sisters who deem power a right rather than a privilege.
Performances like these, and those of others such as Liu Jin as Mao’s admired deputy, Zhou Enlai, create character arcs that help to bind the succession of small scenes into a greater whole. Though considerable material disappeared during the final edit (as well as other cameos, like John Woo’s), the pic manages to take some time out with more extended sequences — notably the nationalists’ bombing of Mao’s hideout in Yan’an — that humanize the players.
For movie geeks bored with the politics, the pic is a cameo-spotter’s paradise: There’s Jet Li as a naval officer, Jackie Chan as a Hong Kong journalist, and Zhang Ziyi as a young communist in a women’s group photo, to name just a few.
Going beyond mere walk-on, Chen Kun brings a frighteningly cool focus to Chiang’s son, Chiang Ching-kuo. Equally effective are actor-helmer Jiang Wen as a quietly ruthless KMT officer, and, most entertainingly, helmer Feng as Shanghai’s most famous gangster, Du Yuesheng.
The bulk of the pic was directed by Huang, whose fine list of credits portraying contempo China with an ironic eye stretches back to “The Black Cannon Incident” (1986). Both Feng and Chen Kaige (who also has an extended cameo as a nationalist officer) are among those who helped with helming chores.
Docu footage is sparingly used, except in the final rally in Tiananmen Square on Oct. 1, 1949, when Mao declared the PRC’s founding. Use of large-scale military scenes from earlier pics — here printed in black-and-white — helped keep the pic’s tab down to a relatively modest 30 million yuan ($4.4 million). Throughout, Zhao Xiaoshi’s widescreen lensing is topnotch.
Han recently announced he’s planning a similar extravaganza, “The Founding of a Party,” set during 1917-21, for the 90th anni of the Communist Party in 2011.