Friday, 9 September 2011

The Founding of a Republic

A tale of Two covers

The Original Chinese cover depicting both the actual "stars" of our period piece, and name checking the most prominent actors.

The English Language cover "starring" the only three Chinese actors most English speakers will be able to recognise, even though they have no role beyond cameo's and use stock martial arts promotional imagery to trick the martial arts crowd to part with there money, even though if it works they'll probably feel cheated when there "Warlords" turns out to be a Chinese Citizen Kane-esque story about the political ramifications of civil strife and internal political conflicts.

Anyway the Chinese film The Founding of a Republic has finally made its way to the Anglosphere (it was made to coincide with the PRC's 60th Anniversary celebrations in 2009). In short it is very good and anyone whose interesting in modern China should check it out. However if you wish to watch the film because Jackie Chan, Jet Lee or Donnie Yen is in it -so is John Woo but apparently he doesn't warrant top billing- don't bother your going to be disappointed. Jet Lee appears very early on as a Nationalist Admiral says three or four lines then leaves. Jackie Chan appears about mid way through as a Reporter interviewing a dissident KMT leader says all of three lines and is not seen again, Donnie yen appears very near the end and is the lyricist of the March of the Volunteers says all of three lines (see a pattern?) John Woo? I recognised him but on reflection can't remember what his character was.

Instead the film gives its lead roles to Chinese actors more accustomed to serious drama then "wire-fu" martial arts like Tang Guoqiang (Mao) and Zhang Gouli (Chiang Kai-Shek). Though to be fair most non Chinese will not have heard of them or seen them in any popular work so it is understandable that the film's advertisers highlighting the most recognisable actors. However using pictures of them from completely different films is still a bit off. The film starts at the end of WW2 just before Japan surrenders, the Japanese have been driven out of China by the Soviet Union after years of brutal occupation and unrelenting resistance by both the Communist Party of China (CPC) and the Nationalist Party/de facto government (KMT) the mood in Nanjing where China is currently governed is optimistic, the Soviet Union has agreed to return all territory its occupying to the Chinese and both Mao and Chiang seem willing to give both a ceasefire and a coalition government a go. Tensions between the CPC and KMT where high since the last time the two where in an alliance under the guidance of the Soviet Union who was a close ally to both the KMT betrayed them and massacred many of the CPC supporters.

And it looks like history is about to repeat itself as despite the CPC making a number of territorial concessions (they had successfully liberated a number of territories in the North East of the country during the turbulence of war) and power sharing agreements between the KMT and other parties being signed -in particular the CPC and Chinese Democratic League (CDL) whom often found itself a neutral observer/negotiator for the other parties back room politics- its not too long before the KMT launches renewed offensive into "red areas" kick starting another civil war.

Now despite taking place during they yearslong conflict theres very little in the way of action scenes, if you are interested in seeing the military side of the conflict then you should probably check out Assembly
the focus is on the political arguments (the diplomacy, the positioning the backstabbing etc.) inherent to the conflict and how a united Communist Party led by Mao was able to not only maintain a war effort against a larger and better equipped military whilst practising a lengthy process of transformation of Chinese society in the villages and towns. This is contrasted with the KMT's fractious nature, there where constant power struggles within the party and its military in fact a portion of it split away altogether to become the Revolutionary Wing of the KMT and Ciang had to remain constantly vigilant against an internal revolt as his popularity declined and his dependence on foreign aid grew.

One particular problem Chiang had which showed how divisive the KMT were was the state of the Chinese economy. As is usual in time of war black markets exploded in size however what was unusual was that very little of the economic instability was directly related to the war with the CPC which operated mostly in the North. There were active CPC supporters all over the country of course but the PLA such as it was, was busy marching on Beiping and the banks of the Yangtze river. Yet virtually every economic hub of China was in chaos, especially Shanghai the keystone of the Chinese economy which is located in the Eastern coast many miles south of the fighting. The reason was that what few Capitalist entrepreneurs existed in China at this point (remember China was less developed then Pre 1917 Russia) where using the war as an excuse to hoard goods to raise prices. Incidentally all of these businessmen where supporters and financial backers of the KMT. Also one of the biggest hoarders in Shanghai were relatives of Chiang Kai-Shek. The KMT couldn't control the loyalty of its own ruling family.

Anyway there isn't much point getting into the plot as this is a historical piece and we all know how it turns out. And even if we didn't the title gives it away, I'll finish by saying this, despite being a 2 hour film involving groups of Chinese talking and arguing it does manage to keep the viewers interest in part due to the inherently interesting times and events it depicts, and the actors ability to emote and transcend the language barrier. A must see for anyone wishing to understand modern China, and to a lesser extent Taiwan.

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