Friday, September 18, 2009

The irony in Founding of a Republic

To get you believing this is undoubtedly the greatest movie in the history of Chinese cinema, state-backed producers enlisted so many famous actors and actresses that even if the action got boring, you’d be too busy stargazing to notice. (Most of the big-timers were given minor roles, though Zhang Ziyi’s two minutes on screen was apparently enough to justify putting her in the center of a movie poster, in front of Mao Zedong.) Let’s put it this way: this film is too big for the big screen, so if it fails, it didn't fail -- you get my drift?

Predictably, Western media has been quick to label Founding of a Republic "propaganda." Go see it anyway, as you probably won't be going for the plot (I'll ruin the ending for you: the Communists win). You'll find yourself thinking things like, "Why doesn't the English subtitles ever use the word 'Communists,' preferring 'CPC'?" (the answer to that one is simple). Or, "Did they create a gratuitous scene with a Hong Kong journalist just so they could give Jackie Chan a speaking role?"

I'd like to think, deep down, the producers understood they were handed an impossible task, so instead of fighting against this no-win proposition they decided to make the most of it by having some fun. Thus all the A-listers, many of them working for free. Their appearance on screen makes moviegoers understand they are, all told, only watching a movie, that what is being depicted wasn't exactly how it went down. The moviemakers had to have known that the story itself couldn't have sold, because, frankly, we've seen, ad nauseam, Chinese war movies about the triumph of The People.

Some of the parts in Founding of a Republic are brutally ironic, and if audiences don't get it, I'd like to think at least the movie's creators did. (My faith in people will never wane.) One scene in particular stands out: a student activist gets on a bandbox and preaches for governmental transparency and democracy; soon after, he is shot dead in the middle of the night... by the KMT, of course. Hmm. There is also a part where Mao Zedong says, solemnly, "We must not forget history." Hmmmm. A little later, Mao tells a former enemy -- and I paraphrase here -- "We must forget the past in order to focus on building China's new future." Hmmmmmm. And what about the director's painstaking depiction (and painful, really) of CPC's first-generation leaders going out of their way to hear the opinions of all delegates, no matter how mundane, and working late into the night on such things as song lyrics. On Mao's brows there is neither impatience nor frustration. Right, that's a historically accurate interpretation.

My intention is not to nitpick. What I believe -- what I want to believe -- is the filmmakers understood how ironic these scenes really are, and somewhere inside them there was this realization -- vocalized only after a night of Cognac or bowls of baijiu, perhaps -- that someday people will laugh at this movie, that they are able to laugh because by then the country and its citizens and leaders will have matured to the point where they can laugh. Until then, irony is an inside joke, buried under weighty ambitions that are so much less interesting, both artistically and politically.

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