A Chinese propaganda film without the heavy dogma and dour treatment that would have been expected a generation ago, “Beginning of the Great Revival” is a slick and lavish historical epic charting the 1921 formation of the Chinese Communist Party. Like co-helmers Han Sanping and Huang Jianxin’s previous megahit, “The Founding of a Republic,” the pic packs the frame with famous faces attractive to younger auds. The tactic paid off handsomely, as the pic has reaped $17 million since its June 15 mainland bow, and should have a modest future offshore when it rolls out in Oz, New Zealand and the U.S.
One of no fewer than 28 films officially endorsed by the State Administration of Radio Film and Television to mark the CCP’s 90th year, pic bowed on more than 7,000 screens and 20 of China’s 24 Imax venues; it accounted for 3 million admissions and 57% of all B.O. biz in its first five days. Still, the film opened softer than “The Founding of a Republic,” and appears unlikely to best its predecessor’s whopping $61 million domestic gross.
Kicking off with the Wuchang Uprising of October 1911 that triggered the Qing Dynasty’s downfall, the narrative initially focuses on Sun Yat-sen (Ma Shaohua), pioneering revolutionary and leader of the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), ) and fellow anti-imperial agitator Chen Duxiu (Feng Yuanzheng). After the establishment of the first republic in January 1912, provisional president Sun is edged aside by Yuan Shikai (Chow Yun-fat), a Qing warlord who takes the title of Emperor of the Great Chinese Empire.
One of the few sections given any significant breathing space is Yuan’s downfall at the hands of former Yunnan governor Cai E (Andy Lau) and his severely outnumbered Republic Protection Campaign forces. Handed a juicy role by young scripters Dong Zhe, Guo Junli and Huang Xin, Chow brings gravitas to a figure whose legacy remains hotly debated.
While viewers who’ve studied the history should be able to follow the proceedings, others may find it difficult keep up with the complex machinations inside the many arms of the pro-Republican movement. Though understanding the finer details can be challenging, the script ensures the big issues and events driving the cause are easy to grasp.
Little more than a bit player for the first 40 minutes, Mao Zedong (mainland heartthrob Liu Ye, “Curse of the Golden Flower”) comes more prominently into the picture following the raw deal China received as a victor nation at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference. Script strongly enforces the sense of betrayal and belittlement felt by the country at the hands of foreign powers as a factor inspiring Mao to leave Hunan for the hotbed of activism at Peking U. Surely the handsomest actor to portray Mao, Liu impresses, whether rallying students into action or sharing a number of sweet romantic moments with future wife and co-revolutionary Yang Kaihui (Li Qin).
The undoubted highlight of the pic’s second half is the staging of the May 4 Movement in 1919 and the protests that followed in its wake. Marshalling all the resources of grand epic filmmaking, Han and Huang capture the necessary exhilaration and excitement of the moments in which Mao and comrades Chen, Li Dazhao (Zhang Jiayi), Hu Shi (Daniel Wu) and Li Da (Huang Jue) realized their dreams had the mass support to become reality.
Gorgeously lensed in widescreen by Zhao Xiaoshi (“Wheat”) and decorated to the hilt, pic’s every frame is a pleasure. CGI reconstructions of old Peking and other locations are tops, and visual enhancements create a genuinely breathtaking sequence set on a boat in Shanghai’s South Lake. The lush orchestral score by Shu Nan and Ma Shangyou is on the money most of the way, with just a few dips into overkill. All other technical aspects are first-class.
Co-helmer Han has announced plans to make a biopic of Mao to complete the “Red Film Trilogy.”