An unabashed hunk of propaganda that might have been fresh 40 years ago, “Zhang Si De” relates the saga of the grunt soldier who purportedly drew fond notice from young Chairman Mao and was promoted by Mao to Revolutionary hero after his accidental death. In this well-mounted but monotonously inspirational canvas, there’s no room for the subtlety helmer Yin Li demonstrated in “The Story of Xinghua” a decade ago. Offshore auds are likely to find results laughably hokey at times, suggesting limited exposure even on the fest circuit.
The personification of simple-but-goodhearted, Zhang Si De (or Side, as translated here) is a tireless, guileless servant of the cause in apple-cheeked Wu Jun’s performance. An orphaned farm boy, he joined the military in 1933. By start of story during WWII, when the Red Army is busy fighting off Japanese invaders, he’s part of the guard protecting Mao (Tang Guoqiang, offering a predictably idealized portrait). Initially criticized for being too modest to advance himself, Zhang’s selfless zeal — expressed in nonstop opportunities for noble or brave deeds — soon attracts a sort of fatherly patronage from the great leader.
Given that Zhang was never sent to the battlefront (an honor he and others here patriotically pine for), the pic must strain somewhat to provide excuses for the action and spectacle its epic aspirations call for.
Just how closely this follows actual events is anyone’s guess; as with Jesus, the one thing you can say with certainty about Zhang Side is that records confirm he did exist. The rest is speculation shaped by belief and official doctrine.
Eschewing color until the climax (which finds Mao giving his famous “Serve the People” speech at Zhang’s memorial), the pic’s handsome black-and-white lensing adds to the retro feel.
The pic doesn’t build much narrative momentum, but its slick package delivers watchable revolutionary kitsch.