A state-sanctioned historical pageant produced to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party, Beginning of the Great Revival is muddled, all right, but it’s the helter-skelter speed at which it ticks off names and incidents, both in hopelessly confused action and on-screen text, that seems nearly unprecedented. Major and minor figures from the decade following the toppling of the Qing Dynasty in 1911 rush past in sub-minute scenes that collectively play like a widescreen, semester-long lesson plan, personified by scores of stars from Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the mainland, most in cameos consisting of a line or three of dialogue. (At my screening, the appearance of comedians playing military officials or revolutionaries drew knowing titters; auteur John Woo shows up too.) There’s both incoherence and stiffness to the film’s parade of events (two assassinations are staged in the opening 15 minutes, motives and targets barely established, with two new characters introduced in the middle of a death rattle) and a flatness usually lacking even propagandistic bombast.
For those seeking relief from the wall-to-wall musical clichés and vacant, impeccably dressed period sets, there is at least Chow Yun-Fat as Yuan Shikhai, a general who ascended to president of the Chinese Republic before succumbing to the hubris of declaring himself emperor. His arc is just as truncated as nearly everything else in this soup of factoids, yet Chow’s gravitas and commanding physicality trump everything else in the first hour’s history-in-a-blender. Once Yuan declines and falls, co-directors Sanping Han and Jianxin Huang have nothing to offer but gliding and dollying their cameras around talky bits of heavy-handed exposition, the odd battlefield scene with slow-mo clods of dirt flying, and the marches of nascent revolutionaries, chief among them young Mao Zedong (Liu Ye), the ex-soldier whose discovery of Marx and Engels is accompanied by a chaste romance with his future wife (Qin Li). The only fireworks marking their courtship are, predictably, in the skies over Beijing.
As the communists and their allies battle for a new China, the stilted dialogue, at least as subtitled, offers a few isolated chuckles (“So Wilson’s Fourteen Points is bullshit?”), but Beginning of the Great Revival mostly lurches to a not-hardly-rousing climax reflected in its Chinese title, which translates to The Founding of a Party. For its concluding scene of the Chinese CP’s official formation, set on a boat gently floating over a foggy, digitally pristine lake, this waxwork tribute can’t even give sufficient brio to a sing-along of “The Internationale.” And in an earlier tableau where young Mao tells a crowd of proles that workers and peasants can rule the nation, a shouted reply of “Sounds too good to be true”—in no way registered as an irony by the filmmakers—illustrates the old Orson Welles adage that you can engineer a happy ending if you know where to end your story.