Jackie Chan, the icon of kung fu comedy, is getting to be an elderly gentleman. Since the mid-to-late ’00s, he has retreated from the physically demanding roles and begun working on more realistic fare, including historical movies. He did a fantastic job in Little Big Soldier (2010), and now he takes on the role of the revolutionary hero Huang Xing, the second-in-command to the famous (and frequently exiled) father of modern China, Sun Yat-sen.
Billed as Jackie Chan’s 100th movie, it is doubly appropriate that the historical movie 1911 Revolution is made on the 100th anniversary of the events it portrays. The 1911 Xinhai Revolution was the first establishing of a Chinese republic, which started as a small modern movement that gained power throughout large parts of rural China, ending up successfully overthrowing the last Chinese Emperor of the Qing Dynasty. The movie relates these events with great chronological precision, being really more of a dramatized documentary than a conventional dramatic narrative. Every significant character is identified on-screen, and even some of the dialogue is probably historically correct.
There is little doubt that the events shown here are a source of intense pride to the Chinese, but they are presented in a somewhat too straightforward way to be narratively efficient. The structure we require from fiction is largely absent, and the characters very hard to identify with, leading one to conclude that the producers should have insisted on more artistic licence. Although the history is interesting, the movie fails to ever properly ignite the viewer’s engagement in the drama. Still, the production values are quite excellent, and one point of interest is the costumes of the Qing Dynasty officals, which are much like the costumes used in a lot of period kung fu movies, here juxtaposed with the Western conservative cut of the revolutionaries’ clothes, marking a passing of the torch from traditional society to a modern society inspired by Western bourgeois styles and values. From 1911 onwards, China is a nation more in step with the modern world. Sun Yat-sen founded the centre-right party Kuomintang to oversee the new China, but after his death China was thrown into a quarter-century civil war, from which the Communist Party emerged victorious in 1949. Kuomintang was pushed back to Taiwan, where they still sit today.
There was one scene in the movie that had a strong emotional impact. Towards the end, when the Forbidden City (i.e. the Imperial Palace) hasn’t got much time left before the revolutionary change, a warlord is giving the Empress Dowager Longyu (the de facto ruler, as the last emperor was only six years old) a history lesson about how the king was guillotined in the French Revolution, the implication being that this is what happens to royalty in revolutions. The Empress Dowager (played perfectly by Joan Chen) is suitably shaken, fires the warlord and abdicates the throne. It goes a long way in illustrating how new and mysterious a thing “revolution” was to the Chinese of the era. They struggle to understand it; to somehow fit this umbrella term onto the sweeping events accompanying wars and systemic changes. They treat it as a Western invention; almost a piece of technology; a roadmap from monarchy to republic. And they are determined to make use of it, even if they do not fully understand it.
The screener set consists of two DVDs; the first has a Bey Logan commentary track and some trailers, and the second has a half-hour press conference and additional interviews. During the press conference, Jackie Chan points out that today, in 2011, China is actually at its greatest cultural high-point ever, finally powerful and respected around the world – which is what the Chinese have always dreamed of and hoped to achieve. And it all started with the Xinhai Revolution in 1911.
1911 Revolution is out on DVD & blu-ray 19th March 2011.
Director: Li Zhang & Jackie Chan
Cast: Jackie Chan, Winston Chao, Li Bingbing, Joan Chen, Jaycee Chan, Dennis To and others
Runtime: 95 min.
Country: China / Hong Kong