Bingbing, Joan Chen, Sun Chun, Hu Ge, Ning Jing, Jiang Wu, Jaycee Chan, Dennis To Yue-Hong, Yu Shaoqun, Huang Zhizhong, Mei Ting, Xing Jiadong, Hu Ming, Huo Qing, Qi Dao, Tao Zeru, Wang Ziwen, Ye Daying, Chen Yiheng, Wei Zongwan, Duobujie, Xie Gang, Sun Jingji, Li Dongxue, Zhang Xiaolin, Wang Ya'nan, Xu Wenguang, Simon Dutton
Oh look, another movie celebrating a Chinese historical event. 1911 follows in the footsteps of patriotic film behemoths Founding of a Republic and Beginning of the Great Revival. Republic and Revival respectively commemorated the 60th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China and the 90th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and both did so with massive all-star casts, high production values and more than a little massaging of the truth. Both films pushed comfortable agendas, but both also managed surprising if not intentional sympathy towards opposing figures and ideas. Credit masterminds Han Sanping and Huang Jianxin, who cobbled those films into interesting and entertaining if somewhat long-winded wholes. Political commercials shouldn’t make for good filmmaking, so it’s surprising what they accomplished.
Conversely, it's surprising how little 1911 accomplishes. While not from the Republic and Revival filmmakers, 1911 has enough similarities that it’s easy to expect the same experience. 1911 covers lots of history, features numerous stars playing historical figures, identifies said figures via onscreen titles and also celebrates an anniversary – in this case, the centennial of the Xinhai Revolution, which signaled the end of the Qing Dynasty and the beginning of a Chinese republic. Sort of. Actually, the Qing abdication did not bring about a republic immediately. There were years of infighting, warlords and also the Chinese Civil War, which ended in 1949 with victory for the CCP and defeat for the Kuomintang (KMT), who retreated to the island of Taiwan. 1911 doesn't cover that much history, but it should be noted that its heroes are more aligned with the KMT than the CCP. There’s irony inherent in this particular celebratory film.
Even more ironic, the film is basically a commercial for revolution, with Sun Yat-Sen (Winston Chao) serving as the primary spokesperson. Considering China's current freedoms (or lack thereof), it's hard to watch 1911 without a perpetually raised eyebrow. It would be best to eschew modern interpretation and simply regard 1911 as only a film - but even doing that, 1911 still isn't very good. It starts off disjointed, jumping around in time while seeming confused about its focus. Sun Yat-Sen is the center of attention on the China poster, but the star should be Jackie Chan as Huang Xing, Sun’s ally who's known as the “Eight-fingered General” because he lost two fingers to a bullet. Huang's maiming is dramatized in 1911’s early going, which finds the Tongmenghui (the political precursor to the KMT) pushing an uprising in Guangzhou. The action fails, resulting in 72 dead revolutionaries, now known in China as the 72 Martyrs.
But Huang Xing survives and is haunted by the loss. At this point, the film seems like it could be about Huang Xing and how he copes, returns to leadership and plays a key role in bringing about the Xinhai Revolution. Huang’s personal story was obviously factored into 1911’s making; the film features many intimate scenes between Huang Xing and Xu Zonghan (Lee Bingbing), the Tongmenghui member who becomes the love of his life, and oftentimes the camera seems to communicate Huang’s gaze and emotions. Everything here screams Huang Xing biopic, but the film constantly returns to the larger panorama, ultimately focusing on Sun Yat-Sen versus the Qing, represented by the Empress Dowager (an entertaining Joan Chen) and Qing general Yuan Shikai (Sun Chun, playing Chow Yun-Fat's role in Revival). Huang Xing fades away and the film becomes a lite version of Han Sanping and Huang Jianxin’s superior patriotic pics. Jackie Chan is billed as the film’s “General Director,” while TV drama director Zhang Li gets the regular director credit, and one wonders what really went down in the editing room.
1911’s problems can be seen everywhere. Pushing Huang Xing into the background renders all his personal moments as odd detours from the larger story of a people's revolution. Huang’s relationship with Xu Zonghan should be a big deal, but their scenes feel unnecessary. One especially useless scene: a nimble martial arts takedown from Huang Xing that would belong in any Jackie Chan film – just not this one. The lead actors try hard, but the dubbing hurts matters, as does the sometimes hammy script. One scene, where Sun Yat-Sen crashes a banker’s luncheon and carves up their mutton with his scalpel, comes off as unintentional comedy. There’s a strong message to the scene, but the script and staging make the venerable Dr. Sun seem like he's trolling. Another moment, a reunion between Sun and Huang Xing, recalls heroic bloodshed bromance in its pronounced homoeroticism. Granted, there’s something entertaining about all of this, but it doesn’t belong in a serious film about the Xinhai Revolution.
The stars here number only a fraction of those seen in Founding or Revival, meaning less "spot the star" fun. There are still highlights; Dennis To and Jaycee Chan show up as revolutionaries who help incite the successful Wuchang Uprising, and Jiang Wu is entertaining as Li Yuanhong, a Qing military officer who’s forced into a key role on the revolutionary side. Hu Ge gets the film's heartthrob role, as super-righteous revolutionary Lin Juemin, who famously died as one of the 72 Martyrs. However, other supporting players come off poorly. Sun Chun’s Yuan Shikai is only a mustache-twirling away from a scheming villain, while the non-Chinese actors are uniformly unimpressive. If a Caucasian actor suddenly stated “We need a Supercop!" in English, it might only be slightly less convincing than what actually occurs. Production values are high; the battle scenes are gritty and expensive-looking, though they never distinguish themselves from the countless other China war movies.
1911 ends with onscreen text stating that although the Xinghai Revolution was a success, it was the Communist Party that brought about a true Chinese republic. It's easy to nitpick this text as yet another example of CCP self-fluffing, especially with the Western media constantly looking for schadenfreude in China’s antics. China politicians and newsmakers are notoriously self-serving so it's natural to cynically ridicule their decisions as Far East folly. Still, it helps to forgo the easy jab at China to see what lies behind. If you distrust China's patriotic filmmaking and attempt to learn more about China history on your own, then the existence of 1911 can only be a positive thing. At the very least, it'll prepare you for all the other historical films, be they Derek Chiu's 72 Heroes (about the 72 Martyrs) or the planned third film in the Han Sanping-Huang Jianxin patriotic film trilogy. Really, they're coming so you might as well get ready for them. Or you could save yourself the grief and simply stop watching patriotic films. Either way, you win.