The revolutionaries who fought to free China from nearly 3,000 years of dynastic oppression deserve a worthier cinematic monument than “1911.” Equally enervating as spectacle and history lesson, this war epic exemplifies the sort of depressingly committee-driven filmmaking presently in vogue on the mainland, though poor local returns (pic opened Sept. 23 with a three-day $1.8 million) suggest that, after “The Founding of a Republic” and “Beginning of the Great Revival,” Chinese audiences are losing their appetites for star-studded, po-faced propaganda. While Jackie Chan’s marquee presence could boost the film’s profile in the West, crossover potential looks as limited as usual for this type of fare.
Co-directed by lenser-turned-helmer Zhang Li and Chan (credited as general director), “1911” was commissioned to honor the centenary of the Xinhai Revolution led by Sun Yat-sen and his military deputy Huang Xing, ending an era of Chinese monarchy and feudalism. In re-creating the crumbling opulence of the waning Qing dynasty and the heavy-duty firepower of the 1911 uprisings at Guangzhou and Wuchang, the filmmakers have spared little expense with their physically imposing vision of this chaotic and violent period (which directly precedes the birth of the Communist Party recounted in “Beginning of the Great Revival”).
But the script by Wang Xingdong and Chen Baoguang (who co-wrote “Founding of a Republic”) is unable to shape these events into a coherent narrative, or to present a stirring depiction of the revolutionary fervor sweeping through China. Resulting mish-mash of exposition and speechifying opts to summarize rather than dramatize; one spends nearly as much time reading indigestible lumps of onscreen text as one does listening to the often distractingly post-dubbed dialogue.
Providing an anchor of sorts is the relationship between Sun (Winston Chao) and Huang (Chan), who lead the Tongmenghui resistance movement on two different fronts. While Sun spends much of the film abroad, rallying financial support from Chinese expats and laying diplomatic foundations for a new republic, Huang is an active fighter at home, losing some fingers in the failed Guangzhou uprising and, for reasons ill explained here, pretending to be the husband of resistance member Xu Zonghan (Li Bingbing).
A proper portrait of how this phony union flowers into a real marriage is one of many onscreen casualties here; when Xu mentions sometime later that she’s carrying Huang’s child, you wonder if you’ve missed a paragraph of plot somewhere. While the filmmakers have clearly marshaled their resources on a grand scale, they haven’t figured out a workable, let alone intelligent, dramatic strategy; individual sequences seem to halt midway through, giving the impression of a pageant with intermittent bursts of movement rather than a sustained piece of moviemaking. The disjointed editing scheme frequently pauses for monochrome slo-mo interludes or idyllic flashbacks of martyred hero Lin Juemin (Hu Ge) running along the beach, all accompanied by unsubtle violin plucking.
Much of the film’s midsection is devoted to a bloody restaging of the Wuchang uprising, as the resistance gains the upper hand but winds up in a protracted stalemate with the armed forces commanded by shrewd tactician Gen. Yuan Shikai (Sun Chun). The scenario does possess a layer of interest in its examination of economic underpinnings, as the impoverished Qing court finances its advanced weaponry by ceding large sections of China to foreign imperialists, auctioning off its sovereignty to wage war against its own people. The republic’s fragile beginnings in 1912, as Sun Yat-sen returns to China and negotiates with Yuan to force the abdication of the Qing empress (Joan Chen) and her young heir, similarly provide flickers of dramatic life far too late in the game.
Chan is fine but colorless as Huang, breaking character at one point to indulge in a wink-wink martial-arts display; Chao makes Sun Yat-sen (a role he’s essayed many times before) a figure of estimable dignity and decency; and Sun Chun impresses as the dangerously unpredictable Yuan. The three are surrounded by an enormous cast of bit players and extras, many identified with onscreen titles that seem at once meticulous and arbitrary. The most cringe-inducing of the real-life personalities here is American adventurer-author Homer Lea, trotted onscreen every so often to utter gee-golly exclamations (“You’re making history!”) presumably for the benefit of a Western audience.
The mealy-mouthed fadeout dutifully extols the virtues of revolution as a force that “seeks eternal happiness for everyone in the world,” gingerly sidestepping the decades of war, famine and slaughter that will follow under different but no less misguided regimes. Title was translated onscreen as “1911 Revolution.”