Thursday, October 06, 2011

1911: Jackie Chan Hits the Century Mark

Dr. Sun Yat-sen is revered as “the Father of the Nation” in both Chinas. Of course, the PRC has largely ignored the second of his Three Principles, that of Mínquán or democracy, in their attempts to co-opt Sun’s legacy. Those efforts are reflected in Zhang Li’s 1911 (trailer here), perhaps more notably distinguished as Jackie Chan’s 100th film, which opens tomorrow in New York.

In the early Twentieth Century, the Qing Dynasty, nominally ruled by the boy-emperor Puyi, was in disarray. Corruption was rampant and foreign powers were increasingly belligerent, despite the half-hearted reforms instituted by the Empress Dowager Longyu, the real power behind the throne. Sun Wen, as he was originally known, was tired of talking about revolution to the Chinese Diaspora, wanting to take a more direct role in the fighting. However, his comrades, most notably the combat-tested Huang Xing, persuade the good doctor his diplomatic and evangelical abilities were too valuable to risk in questionable military ventures.

Reluctantly convinced, Sun gives the Imperial government fits on the world stage, while Huang brings the battle to the Qings. To help him foment rebellion, Huang reluctantly accepts the help of Xu Zhonghan, who assumes the role of his wife. Of course, such pretend intimacies will inevitably become the real thing.

Though most certainly a man of action, Huang is an appropriate role for the fifty-seven year-old not-as-rubber-boned-as-he-used-to-be Chan, who is also credited as 1911’s general director (a title that sounds largely honorific). Most of his battle scenes involve desperate charges or falling shells, rather than super-heroic acrobatics. Still, he has one old school fight scene taking out a pair of would-be assassins that should have played out much longer.

Apparently accepting a new hardnosed middle-aged on-screen persona (a la The Shinjuku Incident), Chan completely sheds his comedic shtick, playing Huang with steely grit. Having previously portrayed Sun in two films and one Chinese television series, former Ang Lee regular Winston Chao convincingly returns to the familiar part, subtly hinting at the multi-faceted man beneath the statesman. While strangely under-utilized, Lee Bing Bing (as she is billed here) has an undeniable screen presence as Xu.

Unfortunately, the film rather unsubtly shoehorns in a considerable amount of PRC propaganda. In fact, the concluding titles literally claim the Communists finished the job Sun, the Confucian Christian convert, started. Of course, nobody mentions democratic republican government per se. Instead, 1911’s Sun advocates revolution in vague people power terms. Traditionally, the PRC has also emphasized Sun’s third principle of Mínshāng or social welfare, but that one no longer makes the cut either. Fortunately, Mínzú, or Chinese nationalism, never goes out of style.

Though there are some nicely produced battle sequences, 1911 is a generally stiff and talky film. It has its ideological points to make and it will make them. As a result, though perhaps of interest to Chan fans happy to see him begin to age gracefully on-screen, 1911 is pretty skippable overall. For the faithful, it opens this Friday (10/7) in New York at the Regal E-Walk.