There’s always a level of alienation involved with being a non-Asian watching Asian cinema. I don’t mean to say being Asian automatically endows one with an in-depth knowledge of several thousand years of one’s own history any more than being a White European means you can, say, speak in detail about the Anglo-Saxon invasion of Britain in the migration period of 500AD. It’s just a fact; there are always going to be things that a person from one culture has trouble understanding or relating to in another’s.
So it would be easy to label the epic film The Founding of a Republic, released to coincide with the 60th Anniversary of the People’s Republic of China, as a film only a native Chinese will understand and appreciate. It was, after all, made as a celebratory film almost exclusively for the domestic market, and fair enough. But it’s not necessarily Founding’s inherent Chinese-ness that make it difficult for non-Chinese to follow; it’s that it’s not terribly well constructed.
Part of the reason for this is the fact that the story tries to do far too much and subsequently ends up doing little. Covering the tumultuous period between the end of World War II and the founding of the People’s Republic of China, Founding follows the political intrigues of a country in revolution, jumping between the many and varied players involved until frankly, unless you know the history inside out or have primed yourself with several pages of Wiki reading, you’ve got almost no hope of understanding. And to make things worse, there’s nothing but talking, talking and more talking, involving what feels like a cast of hundreds, none of whom seem to appear for more than five minutes at a time. The rare pockets of actual action are, in light of that, almost a relief, disproportionately significant, but they’re so few and far between that it becomes quite clear after a while that what you’re definitely not watching is a war film.
Perhaps that is the intention, but neither does the film manage to be anything else clearly identifiable within a genre, unless you consider History Channel dramatisations a film genre. The character of Mao Zedong, played capably by Guoqiang Tang, is humanised to some extent (and by all reports that was some of the point behind this project). But again, the signals are confusing. If this is a film intended for a domestic audience, are the film-makers demonstrating an awareness that pushing on this angle too hard could have the opposite effect? Or are they merely demonstrating that they don’t know how to focus on one character enough to allow the audience to really get to know him? Guoqiang does an admirable job in bringing warmth and pathos to this potentially larger than life figure (whom he has in fact played in the past on television). Arguably, this isn’t difficult; the cinematography and set design brought to bear on the character frames him unfailingly against fields of summer flowers, children, joyful celebrations and warm exchanges with foot soldiers and underlings. But at the end of the film, he still remains more myth than man. As a representation of Marxist-inspired Socialism and an example of the emotionally loaded messages inherent in propaganda as a tool communication and influence, it’s quite subtly done. Particularly when looked at in contrast to the scenes featuring the leader of the Kuomintang. Chiang Kai-shek (Guoli Zhang) is framed in sombre tones and moody, ominous themes where white birds wheel around Roman-esque auditoriums. What’s interesting about this contrast is that Mao’s almost idyllic existence seems to partially also serve to make Chiang a more sympathetic character, a man who is trapped and weighed down by his own flaws and the corruption rife in his failing party.
It almost – almost – makes for a decent narrative, but there’s still too much going on at too high a level. Ultimately it’s a not-bad piece of propaganda, but a less than sterling piece of film-making, which makes the ploy on the part of the film-makers to populate this epic with as many celebrities as they possibly could, both in front of and behind the camera, look like the first truly logical thing they’ve done.
Imagine every A-list Hollywood actor in the one film. Now, imagine that they only get a minute or two on screen each. Imagine, Tom Cruise appearing as a reporter to ask a couple of questions in an interview. Imagine Bruce Willis appearing as a dorky photographer, or Russell Crowe as a star-struck army cook who gets killed in a bomb raid shortly after his appearance. And look, there’s Julia Roberts as an outspoken Women’s Committee member with an opinion on flag design. The level of who’s who-ing going on in this film is almost more than one can comprehend, and again anyone either not Chinese or not well-versed in Chinese cinema is probably only going to get half the picture. I myself only recognised a handful of the big actors and actresses, but the Chinese audience around me were tittering almost every other scene. The likelihood that they were more interested in playing Spot the Famous Face than they were in paying attention to the development of their political origins is, I suspect, fairly high.
In the end it’s hard to say, as that outsider, what this film achieves. Perhaps it’s an exercise in tolerance; after all, democracy produces its own sort of propaganda, arguably one that’s a little more insidious. Or maybe this is just what you get when you let the government (any government) make a film. The Founding of a Republic is clearly preaching to the converted. As a celebration of Chinese modern history, it’s an adequate if challenging rendition; as a film that tells a story, and as a story about the life and rise to power of one of history’s most influential figures, it fails to overcome its government conscripted origins.