The Founding of a Republic

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 01 October, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 01 October, 2009, 12:00am

Starring: Tang Guoqiang, Zhang Guoli, Liu Jin, Wang Wufu
Directors: Han Sanping, Huang Jianxin
Category: IIA (Putonghua)

Mao Zedong would probably be both amused and aghast by this star-packed epic depicting the road to communist victory from 1945 to 1949. On the one hand, he'd find little to object to in the idealised impersonation by Tang Guoqiang (right) of the leader as master strategist and charismatic commander - and speaking in perfect Putonghua without a trace of his heavy Hunan accent. The helmsman, though, would doubtless loathe Zhang Guoli's jaunty interpretation of Chiang Kai-shek, misguided enemy to be sure but far from the demonic monster portrayed in media of an earlier era.

Even more tellingly, Mao - opposed to any cult of the personality other than his own - would be miffed by the need for celebrity endorsements to sell communist propaganda. In this case, there are reportedly 170 stars on parade.

The feature is decidedly more polished and glamorous than previous National Day chronicles such as the turgid Founding Ceremony (1989). But the overall effect is similar: a piling on of so many personages, dates, battles and conferences that it seems more like an orthodox if sketchy romp through bygone times than an engrossing motion picture.

It marks a rare directorial foray by Han Sanping, one of the mainland's leading movie producers, here teamed with co-director Huang Jianxin, who displays virtually none of the wit and nuance he brought to a string of superlative works dating back to The Black Cannon Incident (1986).

The filmmakers strive for, and to a certain extent succeed in creating, a sweeping panorama of late 1940s communist dogma, but the effectiveness is undercut by a reliance on clich?s - the shift to black-and-white for the battle scenes, for instance - and an irritating overuse and misuse of background music. Equally annoying is an excess of maudlinness, perhaps nowhere more evident than in a vignette where Mao plays with his infant daughter in a field blooming with wildflowers.

The script by Wang Xingdong and Chen Baoguang is an ambitious attempt to cram a plethora of events, from the meeting between Mao and Chiang in August 1945 to the founding of the People's Republic just 50 months later, and to leaven the proceedings with enough humour, sentimentality, and idols to make the final result both politically acceptable and a box office contender. Most star cameos last less than a minute, with such notables as Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Andy Lau Tak-wah and Zhang Ziyi leaving little impression.

Some, like Liu Ye as a soldier enthralled by Mao, overact shamelessly while a few, among them Chen Kun as Chiang Ching-kuo (Chiang's son) deliver more memorable turns. Film buffs will have fun seeing how many luminaries they recognise, for in the end the saga is more an exercise in stargazing than a stimulating look at history.

The Founding of a Republic opens today