Bullish in a China Show
The Founding of a Republic (2009)
Last October, the People's Republic of China commemorated its 60th anniversary: an event marked by small-scale celebrations across the country, a massive parade in Beijing and the release of a star-studded historical epic, "The Founding of a Republic." The film follows the struggles of Mao Zedong (Tang Guoqiang) and the Communist Party as they win a civil war, secure control of China and send Chiang Kai-shek (Zhang Guoli), the leader of the rival National Party, to Taiwan in exile.
I actually had no grand plans to see the film — I wandered into a movie theater and requested tickets for whatever was playing next. I sat in my (assigned) seat and waited for some melodrama or kung-fu film to fill the screen. It turned out to be "The Founding of a Republic." And while the film lacks some cinematic energy, it provided good food for thought about China's view of itself, its roots and its legacy. Like most stories of revolution, it's always a nice reminder that nations are not born in in a vacuum, and some of the more interesting moments of the film revolve around the construction of a national identity, by highlighting arguments over the design of a new flag, anthem and governing body.
As other critics have noted, the portrayals of both Mao and Chiang are much more nuanced than in previous films. Chiang is less of an outright villain and more of a weak and tragic character, isolated in his own luxury. Mao is depicted as humble, hard-working and forgiving to a fault; but in general, I was expecting much more propaganda than I got. I was treated to only one scene that caused some inner eye-rolling: Mao, in soft-focus, laughing with children in a field of lilacs, while music plays sweetly in the background. And while the narrative and pacing is too stiff to be considered artful, the film itself is beautifully shot and the insertion of actual documentary footage gives it a sobering and moving quality.
Since I'm not Chinese, I'm sure there were subtleties and nuances that escaped me, but as a waiguoren (foreigner), it was interesting to see the film's perspective on the West. At one point, Chiang's wife, Soong May-ling (Vivian Wu), goes to Washington D.C. to request support from the Secretary of State. As she walks up the steps, she passes two soldiers. One, a young black man, raises his eyebrows suggestively. The white solder coughs to snap him back into propriety, prompting the black soldier to respond with, "Wow. She's so hot, man." Historical anachronisms aside (How does that even resemble 1940's slang?), it's a glimpse into the view of the stereotypical, oversexed black man — a trope that is alive and well in the United States, but seems to be more explicitly rendered across the globe.
While the film didn't dig too deeply and essentially stuck to a single story that most Chinese are familiar with, "The Founding of a Republic" was still surprisingly complex and well-produced. The audience on this particular day was varied; and most people seemed emotionally invested in the film. I sat next to an older man and his young granddaughter, who clamped her hands over her eyes during the war scenes, while the young woman on my right quietly applauded towards the triumphant end. A few audience members even appeared to be crying. But whether these were reactions borne from genuine patriotism, a sense of duty or just enjoyment of a run-of-the-mill celebrity-studded picture, I still don't know.