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72 Martyrs or 犀照 (2011)

January 28, 2013 Leave a comment

72-Martyrs-2011-Movie-Poster-2

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.

Wei-Ru (Elanne Kong) , Gao Jian-Fu (Liu Kai-Chi) and Pang Da-Wei (Tse Kwan-Ho)

Wei-Ru (Elanne Kong) , Gao Jian-Fu (Liu Kai-Chi) and Pang Da-Wei (Tse Kwan-Ho)

 

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.

Luo Zhong-Huo (Zhao Bingrui)

Luo Zhong-Huo (Zhao Bingrui)

 

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.

 

1911 or Xinhai geming (2011)

September 29, 2011 3 comments

One of the more unusual features of the various Communist regimes around the world has been their interest in what’s usually called heroic art — it’s actually visual propaganda. These are massive murals and statuary (both free-standing and incorporated into architectural structures designed to impress) showing inspired workers looking forward to the future with optimism in their eyes or brave soldiers defending the land against enemies both without and within. This is idealism blended with an intensely nationalistic realism, and its purpose is to deliver messages to the illiterate peasants. Despite improvement in literacy, the display of this art has persisted into relatively modern times both in China and, more commonly, North Korea. I’ve always found its naïveté faintly amusing. Sadly, I’ve just sat through a film having as much interest as such art.

 

I had great hopes when I saw the news of 1911 or Xinhai geming. On the centennial of some of the pivotal events in Chinese history, it’s appropriate to look back and remember. Except, this is yet another example of history distorted for the purposes of making a film — in this case, a film as a starring vehicle for Jackie Chan. The poster on the left is all that’s wrong with the film. The poster on the right shows an ensemble cast which is how the film should have been made. So instead of the result being a good piece of cinema, distorting the facts in a way I could tolerate with no more than mild disapproval, I’m left with a result that’s neither good history nor a good film. Sadly, 1911 or Xinhai geming messes with the history and must rank as being one of the most boring “historical” films of the last decade. (For a general discussion of this problem, see Should historical films be like documentaries?)

 

So we start off in April 1911 with the second attempt to stage an uprising in Guangzhou. As in the real world, a few brave souls under the leadership of Huang Xing (Jackie Chan) caught the local Qing Dynasty officials unprepared but, when reinforcements arrived, most of the revolutionaries were killed. The second major set-piece is the Wuchang Uprising which, although starting off in a somewhat unplanned way, became the trigger for many of the southern states to throw in their lot with the revolutionaries. The combination of these two military events and their consequences is called the Xinhai Revolution which, in turn, prompted the abdication of the Emperor in February 1912.

Jackie Chan as Huang Xing out of military uniform

 

For what’s its worth, my own view of this period sees two figures as pivotal. Sun Yat-sen (Winston Chao) was one of the founders of the Tongmenghui in 1905 (later changing its name to the Kuomintang), intending to create a republic for the Han by throwing out the Manchus. The second key figure was Yuan Shikai (Chun Sun) who beautifully exploited his control of the Chinese military to destabilise the Qing Dynasty and replace Sun Yat-sen as President. Had he not then tried to declare himself Emperor, China might have followed a very different path. As an aside, it was fascinating to watch Chun Sun transfer his portrayal of Yuan Shikai to the cinema. He was mesmeric in the excellent serial Towards the Republic which aired on television in 2003. This is not to deny the historical role of Huang Xing who, after training in Japan, became the leader of the military wing of the Tongmenghui. But the adoption of Huang Xing as the lead character in this film is little more than an excuse for Jackie Chan to do his serious acting bit, inspiring the men in trench warfare and leading from the front when it comes to attacking across no-man’s land. As one of the two directors alongside Li Zhang, he even allows himself a little hand-to-hand combat to disarm an assassination squad trying to kill Sun Yat-sen on his return to China. We can’t have Jackie and not have him show off his skills.

Winston Chao as Sun Yat-sen whom some see as the founding father of modern China

 

Although the various revolts and uprisings were the essential precursors of change, the real power lay in the hands of the military where Yuan Shikai was supreme, and among the emergent middle class where Sun Yat-sen was dominant. Such fighting as took place was the stimulus to shifts in political allegiance as the Qing Dynasty ran out of money and lost its credibility among the power-brokers. Interestingly, Huang Xing drew heavily on the universities where the newly educated young from the middle and upper classes were full of enthusiasm for change. The first military conscripts for the revolution were almost all students. It’s important to recognise this revolution was not a peasant uprising. The hoped-for republic was all about a redistribution of wealth and better commercial opportunities for all.

Chun Sun as Yuan Shikai — the best actor on the set who never gets the screen time he deserves

 

All of this gets lost in some stirring images of warfare interspersed with battlefield surgeons hacking off the limbs of the maimed. We are repeatedly shown pictures of the initial martyrs from Guangzhou and have some of their words quoted to us. The realpolitik that produced the fall of the Qing Dynasty is left cloudy and vague, largely because the role of Yuan Shikai is woefully underwritten. The result is a mishmash of bits of fighting, Sun Yat-sen goes to Europe to persuade the Western bankers not to continue funding the Qing Dynasty, and then there’s a swift elevation of Sun Yat-sen to temporary president. Unless you know the history, you are likely to be confused. There are occasional bursts of explanatory notes on the screen, but they do not linger long enough to read as we plunge into the next scenes. The only thing approaching an emotional heart to the film is the relationship between Huang Xing and his mistress Xu Zonghan (Bingbing Li). They are thrown together just before the abortive attack on Guangzhou and later have a child as a gesture to their confidence in a better-looking future. They were wrong, but that’s the next film to be made in this historical sequence.

 

So, I’m sad to say 1911 or Xinhai geming is not a film I would recommend anyone to see unless you don’t mind the politics sacrificed to a few battlefield scenes. Although Jackie Chan does his best in a straight role and Winston Chao is really pleasing as Sun Yat-sen, the development of the historical narrative is poor and their efforts come to little because we’re not encouraged to identify with them as individuals or with their struggle to depose the Qing Dynasty. It all just happens as if you’re walking through Mao’s Beijing viewing a series of murals on which heroic figures holding flags seem to be fighting for something important.

 

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