72 Martyrs or 犀照 (2011)
Political history is always a challenging topic for storytellers since, by definition, the current generation not only has the benefit of hindsight but also the power to change the way the past is shown to fit modern needs, e.g. Shakespeare revised historical facts to make good theatre and rehearse moral arguments about the propriety of rebellion. In this film, we come to the centenary of the sequential revolts and uprisings in China of the early twentieth century. The political decision was made to invest in a number of films to explore some of the individual events leading up to Xinhai Revolution and the birth of the modern Chinese state, e.g. 1911 or Xinhai geming (2011) and The Woman Knight of Mirror Lake or Jianhu Nuxia (2011) dealing with a slightly earlier martyrdom. I suppose at one level, this is an example of state-funded propaganda. The modern political need is not simply to remind people of how the Communist Party got going. It also needs to confirm the only reason it was ultimately successful is because it garnered enough support from the people. Albeit the modern party has evolved and no longer makes policy with quite the same revolutionary roots, it still needs to reinforce messages of self-sacrifice and the need for the people’s continuing support for those policies.
The topic here is the Second Huangzhou Uprising which took place on the 27th April, 1911. Since almost all those who took part knew they were likely to be killed in the attack on the Qing Representative in the province, their willingness to sacrifice themselves for the cause was inspirational. In part, the reason for their fame was the letters they wrote to their families and loved ones before they went into battle. These were later published and individual contributions like that of Lin Jue Min who wrote to his wife, have become classics of modern Chinese literature. Thematically, this was covered in To My Wife or 百年情书 (2011) which follows Lin Jue Min’s life from 1905 to 1911, showing the balance between love for his wife and his patriotism. With one other film already in the pipeline dealing with the same subject matter, the director Chiu Sung-Kei took the decision to deal with the more general history of the lead up to the uprising. Instead of focusing on the seventy-two and having dramatic sequences showing them first taking command of the Qing compound and then being overwhelmed, it offers a more gentle analysis of the relationship between the Qing representatives, the gangs and the revolutionaries.
The immediate group of revolutionaries is led by Gao Jian-Fu (Liu Kai-Chi) and newspaperman Pang Da-Wei (Tse Kwan-Ho). They are joined by Luo Zhong-Huo (Zhao Bingrui) who has spent time with Sun Yat-Sen in Malaysia. To raise money, Luo makes friends with Jiang Mei-Xi (Irene Wan). She’s under the general protection of gang boss Fang Hong-Zhi (Wang Jianchang) and despite the man’s jealousy, is able to secure money from him. This funding is also in repayment of Luo’s intervention to solve a turf dispute between the gangs. His timely action disrupts a dispute by disabling a gang leader. Fang’s daughter Wei-Ru (Elanne Kong) is also attracted to the newcomer and is a revolutionary in spirit. Trying to keep a lid on this volatile situation is the corrupt Li Zhun (Eric Tsang) who, as the Quing representative, is also dealing with the British in the heroin trade.
At its heart, this is a very simple and low-key film. The local revolutionaries grow tired of being told to wait. They know the extra few days added to the schedule are not going to make any difference. They will all probably die in the uprising. Indeed, they acknowledge their role is to be as martyrs. If the people are to be provoked into anger, they have to see the brutal way in which the regime deals with revolutionaries. History shows their sacrifice was not in vain. As a film it’s quietly understated and rather melancholic. Although there’s heroism on show, it’s in the quiet determination to make every life count in the greater struggle. 72 Martyrs or 犀照 makes a thoughtful contribution to the patchwork cinematic review of this period of Chinese history.