The Chinese student group asked me to come out and talk at their showing of Jackie Chan’s 1911. As it was competing with the Stillers game attendance was not great, but we did have a nice chat afterwards.
The movie was… less than ideal. It was a nice time, however, to think about drama and history. How to make a movie about 1911? This was an interesting topic for me in part because my adviser was a consultant for the PBS series China in Revolution ((which is really good)) They were given 7 seconds to sum up the 1911 Revolution. Film and history don’t always play nice together. I’m not always a history snob. If you warp history and make a good film out of it I’m fine with that. This one did not work either way however. Part of the problem was that Jackie Chan is apparently continuing his campaign to become a Chinese icon acceptable to Beijing. He’s great for that in some respects. Being from HK and having trained in a Beijing Opera school he has the connections to both China’s 5000 years of history and Greater China. Unfortunately his skills as an actor rotate around his Gongfu and the fact that he has the chops to do comedy. As Huang Xing he does not do any comedy,and he is too old to do much Gongfu. There is a hint of a romance in here, but it does not save the film.
O.K. so if they are not going to make a good film that abandons history, what about one that follows it? 1911 is a good story, yes? For obvious reasons they have to abandon some of the narratives of the Revolution. Although the actual revolution was intensely anti-Manchu, the Manchus are no longer evil exploiters of the Chinese people. Now they are one of the 56 nationalities that make up the Chinese people, and so Manchu Evil is not a possible bad guy. Pu Yi is presented as a brat, which deals with the problem of making a little kid manipulated by his elders a source of pity. The villain here is Yuan Shikai. This is not a big surprise, and he is the best character in the film. I really liked the scene where he is dismissed from his post serving the Qing (because he is already betraying them), tosses away his staff and does a little dance. Is he dancing because he is a Han finally free from the Manchu yoke? Because he is an opportunist finally free to act on his own? You could build a nice movie around him, especially if, unlike this movie, you acknowledge his history as a reformer.
If Yuan is the bad guy, who is the good guy? Sun Yat-sen, as always, is wooden. His inspiring leadership or clever plans will not make a revolution, although his fundraising powers are praised. Huang Xing, Chan’s character, is a loyal servant rather than a revolutionary rival, as he actually was. The movie does acknowledge the current interpretation of the revolution. While the Wuhan uprising may have started things, it was the provincial assemblies declaring for the Revolution that really made it happen. Provincial assemblies passing motions do not make for great drama, They represent this by a scene where people launch rafts with the names of the different provinces. Not much better, unfortunately.
So what did make the revolution? Sacrifice. The movie opens with Qiu Jin embracing death for China and her children, and it ends with the child of one of the (dead) revolutionaries grasping a letter from his father. There is a lot of blood, and a lot of suffering, and while the suffering is not linked to anything, there is a lot of it. It is the blood of the martyrs that led to the new China and then in an odd little finale, to the Communist revolution. It is is some respects a very faithful movie. Homer Lea is in here, for no good reason, as is Wang Jing-wei (downplayed, for some reason) but it did not really work for me either as a film or as history.