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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:

我很怀疑导演是在用反讽的手法来拍摄这部电影。看着那些开国元帅们纵情唱着国际歌,毛泽东说,我们永远要团结。我看到了这部电影成为一部真正的优秀电影的潜质——那就是它不在1949年结尾,而是以1976年结尾。在1949年的时候,诚挚的人民诚挚的望着诚挚的毛泽东和诚挚的新中国,然而六十年后,人们依然没有一米自己的土地,大家都是寄生而已。以前我们的旧社会由很多的阶级组成,现在简单了,只有四个阶级,那就是穷人,房奴,富人和富豪。

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.

从另外一方面来讲,建国大业是一部爱情文艺片,它委婉的讲述了穷小子追求富家女的故事,当时的共产党就是穷小子,新中国是待嫁的富家女,国民党是订了婚的情敌,各民主党派和社会名流是富家女的朋友,穷小子成功的秘诀就是一开始要有理想,谈未来,许承诺,拉拢朋友,乱开空头支票,当然,会打架是排在第一位的。最终终于成功的娶了新中国。当然婚后的生活就和在座的各位当年花言巧语的男同志们的婚后生活差不多。

你们泡妞时的承诺都做到了吗?

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?

8 comments

  • Needham

    Is there any way to see this movie in the US?

  • PH

    Great review, even though I still don’t have any desire to see the movie.

    I am beginning to believe that the greatest value of this movie is providing fodder for reviews, arguments, and satirical commentaries. Thus far I haven’t seen many people who straight out say they love it. Yet there are plenty of posts about the stars that were cast, the nationalities of these stars, etc etc.

  • […] the 60th year anniversary of PRC but deferred until the end of 2009. In contrast with the Founding of a Republic! which spotlights on national heroes, the movie features on a number of grassroots characters, who […]

  • […] 60 ya Jamhuri ya Watu wa China lakini ikacheleshwa mpaka mwisho wa mwaka 2009. Tofauti na filamu ya Founding of a Republic! (Mwanzo wa Jamhuri ) ambayo inaonyesha mashujaa wa taifa, filamu hiyo inaonyesha waigizaji kadhaa […]

  • […] anos da República Popular da China, mas foi adiado até o final de 2009. Em contraste com o filme A Fundação de uma República! [The Founding of a Republic, no título original] que foca em heróis nacionais, o filme realça […]

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