China: The Founding of a Republic! Propaganda, or a commercial success with some irony?

Only 3 weeks after hitting the screen, The Founding of a Republic has already taken in nearly $ 60 million. Naturally, it has created a huge stir in China’s online community. A simple indication is Google China’s hot trend list, where this movie has remained on top since release. In less than 1 month, The Founding of a Republic is firmly on track to be the hottest domestic movie ever shown in the Chinese cinemas.

Why is this movie so successful? Certainly, one should not forget that 176 celebrities of Chinese cinema were cast, which made the trailer almost seem like a Power Point presentation. The fact that such cast will be once and never again has generated a huge buzz. Kai Pan of CNReview commented:

Come now, it’s true, and it’s true because — believe it or not — many Chinese already expect the film to be propaganda. They’re keenly aware of the circumstances surrounding it and the bigger question for them is: How many stars can they spot and identify?

An even simpler reason many bloggers have pointed out is that, the movie is not at all bad! It is not the type of third-grade propaganda nonsense that Chinese viewers were brought up with in the past. In a defense against the likely dismissal of the movie as mere propaganda, Kai Pan wrote:

…I’m happy to report that while a few events were portrayed in a noticeably skewed manner, there’s thankfully few — if any — obvious to outrageous rewritings of history (excusing dramatic artistic license). In fact, the movie was far more gracious in their handling of Chiang Kai-Shek and the KMT Nationalists than I expected. (Of course, this was because I feared the worst from this movie, and now I probably owe the CCP responsible for this movie a measure of respect for, well, not living up to my fears.) Unlike so many lesser PRC produced films and television shows set in the Chinese Civil War era, Chiang Kai-Shek and the KMT were not grossly vilified here. They were portrayed, I think, rather respectfully as multi-faceted humans with their human greatness, human flaws, and human mistakes.

IMDB User Markringo, likely someone from outside China, also praised the movie from a cinematic point of view.

I think Han (the director) really did his best this time – Kaige Chan successfully portraits warlord Feng Yuxiang, Jet Li as a hero and Andy Lau as an air force commander, Jackie Chan as a journalist..oh my what a crew… The most unforgettable role that I think is Jiang Wen as Mao Renfeng. Actually it is a personalized history of Han himself – the story telling almost sticks with Zhang Guoli and Chen Kun from the start to the end. The Shanghai gang bloodbath is the most decent scene in this film, full of Han's style. If you've watch some movies he made you will realize that. This is definitely not, as some unknown media says, a government's propaganda film.

However, the same comment pointed out another key factor behind The Founding’s success: the guaranteed support from the state around the time of the People’s Republic of China’s 60th anniversary:

Usually government doesn't invest money on commercial films, once it does, it should reflect the highest film making level of this country as least. John Woo made the movie in which five pigeons fly out, whilst Han made this one nearly 5,000 pigeons fly out with a gunshot, what a difference!

The presence of the state may be felt everywhere, even outside the sphere of physical resources or financial backing. For instance, all 176 movie stars are allegedly “volunteers”, which means, as if for a charitable movie, they all chose to receive no pay no matter how involved they were. This helped to trim the budget to no more than 10 million dollars, a stunning feat with Chinese characteristics that the whole world will try very difficult to emulate.

No surprise that despite sincere portrayal of history and aggressive marketing strategy, the movie always follows the Communist party line. Kai Pan commented:

As for the Mao Zedong and the Communists, well, they were portrayed decidedly without much weakness and fault, save maybe being far poorer than the KMT Nationalists. While Chiang Kai-Shek and the Nationalists are repeatedly shown being driven around in fancy cars and pondering the precariousness of their rule within grand villas, Mao & Co. are huddled in mud huts, conserving candles, and laughing about getting stewed meat twice a month. This juxtaposition, of course, serves to make Mao and his band of merry Communist leaders seem the rugged, scrappy, and long-suffering David that eventually brings down the Goliath.

The movie itself might not be bad, and the heavy odor of propaganda may be set aside from the discussion for a while, but a much bigger irony remains: If the story of the founding of People’s Republic of China is a struggle for the prosperity, equality and democracy for all people, as it was portrayed in the film, what then of the result?

As dictated by this movie’s subject matter, a proper appreciation will inevitably involve a serious re-consideration of China’s past and present, after which, most people will find out something very awry. The People’s Republic now is still far from the kind of nation the founding fathers had imagined. It is a promise yet undelivered. It has been a long, long winding road with no end in sight. Han Han, the famous racer and satirical blogger, raised up this question in his typical sharp style:


I am highly suspicious that the director is employing irony in his method. Take for example that scene when those founding generals uproariously sang L’Internationale, and when Mao Zedong said, we should be forever united. (At that moment) I sensed this movie’s real potential to become a true classic: if it did not end in 1949, but rather in 1976! In 1949, the sincere people sincerely embraced the sincere Mao Zedong and the sincere New China. Yet, after 60 years, the people still do not own even a single meter of their own land. We are all no more than tenants. Before, our ‘old society’ was composed of many classes. Now it is much simpler, there are only four: the poor, the housing slave, the rich and the obscenely rich.



In another sense, The Founding of a Republic is like a love story. It artistically recounts the story of an impoverished boy who was pursuing a rich family’s daughter. The Communist Party was the poor boy, the New China is the daughter waiting to be married, the KMT is the fiancé and all those democratic parties and independents are the daughter’s friends. The boy’s secret to success is to have dreams, brag about future, relentlessly network and make many empty promises. Of course, being unafraid to fight is the most important of all. At last, he successfully married the New China. Apparently, the life after this marriage is not much different than the life after your marriage.

Have you met your promises you made when you were dating?


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