The increasing quality of “official” mainland Chinese productions — strikingly demonstrated by the recent “The Founding of a Republic” — is more than evident in “Tian An Men,” another state-funded celebration of New China’s 60th anni, but one with considerable filmmaking smarts beyond its flag-waving. Terrific visual effects, engaging performances and an offbeat storyline spun around the hurried 1949 revamp of Beijing’s most famous ceremonial gate make this a curio worthy of film weeks and Asiaphile events — if free-thinking programmers can get their heads around the politics.
Reportedly based on a first-hand account told to helmer Ye Daying (“Red Cherry,” “A Time to Remember”), Wang Bing’s script focuses on a handful of members of a PLA drama troupe who are given the task of fixing up the massive gate (which now faces Tiananmen Square) in time for Mao’s official declaration of the PRC’s founding on Oct. 1, 1949. At the time, the 300-year-old gate tower was a dusty, crumbling pile, faced by a polluted stream and looking onto a weed-infested square.
Capt. Tian Zhenying (Pan Yueming), leader of the troupe’s stage-design team, is entrusted with the task by Minister Zhang (Liu Xiaoxin) and given virtual carte blanche to come up with some interesting ideas. The catch is, he and his team have only a month to do it.
After deciding to decorate the gate with red flags and fabrics, Tian finds there’s a shortage of red dye in the capital (red being the color du jour) and he has to bamboozle a dye-maker in Tianjin to come up with the goods. Two weeks later, scholars critique the design for being too blunt and militaristic, so Tian comes up with the idea of creating huge Chinese lanterns. This (amusingly) involves tracking down an aged lantern-maker, Lin (Tian Lihe), whose mindset is still in imperial times.
The script stirs in a considerable amount of genial light comedy as the clock ticks toward Oct. 1, showing argumentative party workers as well as the general fumbling around that went into the preparations for one of history’s most famous events. The climax, starting with a breathtaking aerial shot of Tiananmen Square (enhanced to rep the era by state-of-the-art CGI), melds pristine archival footage with re-enacted material, and in its simplicity packs a surprisingly emotional punch as the human focus stays on Tian.
A subplot of a putative romance between a troupe member (Xin Peng) and an accordion-playing teacher (Guo Keyu) never gets off the ground, and an antiwar Japanese worker (Masanobu Otsuka) seems awkwardly stitched into the script. Still, other players are just fine, with the relationship between Tian and the minister artfully played by Pan and Liu.
Best of all, Quan Rongzhe’s superb production design realistically captures a time when Beijing was still a low-lying, old-fashioned, provincial northern city that had just survived two major wars and was far from the showcase it’s since become. Fluid, beautifully lit camerawork by Yang Tao, with sweeping crane shots, makes the pic an easy sit.
Reported budget of 50 million yuan ($7 million) — almost double that of “Founding” — is all up on the screen, with half spent on the awesome main set, built at the gigantic Hengdian World Studios south of Shanghai.