Beginning of the Great Revival
Starring: Liu Ye, Chow Yun-fat, Feng Yuanzheng, Jiang Jiayi
Director: Han Sanping, Huang Jianxin
Category: IIA (Putonghua)
Living up to its raison d'?tre as a film celebrating the 90th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party, Beginning of the Great Revival overflows with re-enactments of the rapturous political rallies, heady student demonstrations and clandestine meetings that led to the birth of what is now the world's biggest Marxist-Leninist political organisation in the world.
The party, ironically, is now presiding over what is effectively the world's biggest capitalistic free-for-all today.
There is a scene which, perhaps inadvertently, spells out this paradox: fleeing from the police busting a party meeting, Dutch communist and Comintern representative Henk Sneevliet jumps out of a window and lands in a back street marked, in the distance, by a building with a large sign bearing the name of the Bank of China.
A valediction of the talk about proletarian revolution one moment and an unabashed product placement for a financial institution the next - this clash of ideologies aptly shows why Revival is such a confusing beast.
Directed by China Film Group chairman Han Sanping and veteran filmmaker Huang Jianxin, Revival boasts of being a sincere 'tribute' to the party but resorts to the casting stunt of cramming more than 100 well-known actors into its two-hour screen time.
The ambiance also fluctuates, as this account of the years between 1911 (when the revolution rid China of its last monarch) and 1921 (when the Chinese Communist Party was founded) is manifested on screen as an action thriller, a war movie and - perhaps most intriguingly - a syrupy romance, as seen in a scene of a young Mao Zedong (Liu Ye) and his first wife Yang Kaihui (Li Qin, pictured above with Liu) running in slow motion to watch a fireworks display in a snowy backyard.
This representation of Mao as a lovelorn young man is more than just an act to humanise the Chairman: it could also be interpreted as a re-evaluation of Mao's erstwhile god-like standing in history books, as Revival places Mao - quite correctly - as just a minor character in the run-up to the genesis of the party.
Here, the 'Great Revival' is set in motion by others; Mao is certainly upstaged in the film by figures such as the progressive Song Jiaoren (Zhang Hanyu), the battle-hardened hero Zhu De (Liao Fan) and the fiery revolutionary Chen Duxiu (Feng Yuanzheng).
It remains to be seen whether this take on party history mirrors an ideological shift behind the power struggles in Beijing today. Much more worthy of speculation, however, is the film's bravura 10-minute sequence depicting the May 4 movement in 1919, a campaign largely seen as a pre-cursor to the birth of Chinese communism.
In perhaps the film's best-choreographed and most stirring part, students are seen pleading with soldiers not to suppress their demonstrations while a solitary schoolgirl kneels in front of a government building with a piece of cloth marked with the Chinese character yuan, or 'grievance'. These are scenes which mirror eerily what happened in Tiananmen Square in 1989 - and why Revival allows for such an easy reminder of that is perhaps more thought-provoking than anything else in the film.
Beginning of the Great Revival opens today