Jackie Chan (center) in “1911 Revolution”
Directed by Jackie Chan, Zhang Li
Starring Winston Chao, Jackie Chan, Joan Chen
Subtitled in English and Mandarin
Not yet MPAA rated
Run time: 125 minutes
Perhaps not until a country starts to explain itself and its own history to the outside world in celluloid does it start to understand itself; and here’s proof that this can be a painful experience — an expensive one too, in this case.
Jackie Chan’s 100th movie coincides with the 100th anniversary of the birth of modern China upon its 1911 revolution. It’s brave of him to tackle this super-sensitive topic in China, leading as it did to Taiwanese secession.
Certainly he’s the only Chinese star strong enough to pull this off, and he’s racked up enough credits for his followers to cut him a little slack. As a fan I take off my hat to him for tackling a project of this breadth and ambition. (See trailer below.)
It’s obviously idealistic — the revolutionaries are clearly the good guys, the Qing dynasty and Westerners are delusional. What’s not made clear is why it’s still sensitive enough to cause argument and controversy at home.
In 1911 China, the Qing Dynasty has ruled for over two centuries, the people are starving and beginning to rise against its “new army,” with its costly weaponry imported from the West. The Emperor is a 7-year-old whose Dowager Empress mother (Joan Chen) is so imperial that she has lost all touch with her own people in the Forbidden City, so ruthless that she uses imperial tears to get her autocratic way. Her scenes resemble an act from “Turandot.” Onscreen captions tag historic characters and fill in plot.
As an idiosyncratic hybrid between a thrilling action epic complete with lavish CGI budget and po-faced history lecture, “1911 Revolution” is a strange pushmi-pullyu of a movie. It’s challenging and broad in scope, but also tries hard — too hard — to be faithful to every fascinating detail, from the court of the Empress to bound feet of the girls and horrors of the battlefield.
Chan co-directs with Zhang Li, as well as acts in a story that’s as familiar in China as the colors of the red flag and yet that remains sensitive in China today. So it can truly be called an idealist’s labor of love, if love’s labors lost.
But it has a lot of guts, and like its progenitor, director, and co-lead, it has the daring to take on the task and spend a fortune while doing so. It even has the odd comical moment, sometimes unintentionally.
Its fidelity to historic detail is noticeably painstaking. So is the ravishing cinematography in the Forbidden City, the lavish sets and costumes in the scenes with Joan Chen as the Qings’ Dowager Empress; but it often needs a better English translation, and possibly a better script as well.
Those script oddities trip it up, and we also get an incongruous scene of flashy kung-fu to entertain those who come to see Jackie Chan, in his camera subject and hat, and give us a break from the history lessons!
That Western characters are quite devoid of intelligence or sympathy is not a problem (no doubt they were), but they’re devoid of interest too. This script (in translation) delivers strokes broader than those delivered by Jackie Chan’s fists, although possibly in Mandarin this may suit a heroic and idealist flag-waving epic well.
Do we Westerners understand the process of Chinese history better after 1911? Broadly. But though several cameo characters display subtlety and Jackie Chan’s love affair with the popular Bing Bing Li is genuinely touching, we Westerners can mourn a missed opportunity to understand better. But I imagine audiences will weep over this film in China, if they get to see it.