Made to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Xinhai Revolution, which heralded the end of China’s Qing dynasty, and starring Jackie Chan in his 100th role, 1911 promises to be an epic historical drama, but is badly let down by poor writing and incoherent directing.
Made to celebrate the
100th anniversary of the Xinhai Revolution, which heralded the end
of China’s Qing dynasty, and starring Jackie Chan in his 100th role,
1911 promises to be an epic historical drama, but is badly let down by poor
writing and incoherent directing.
1911 tells the story of Huang Xing (Chan), general of the revolutionary forces, and right hand man of
revolutionary leader Sun Yat-sen (Winston
Chao). It traces the story of Huang’s shaky military progress on the
mainland, starting with the failed Guangzhou uprising of April 1911, but
culminating in the Wuchang uprising, which eventually led to the Qing Emperor’s
abdication. Sun, for his part, spends most of the film overseas, raising
support from the Chinese diaspora in America and crashing posh luncheons in the
UK. He eventually returns triumphant to China, and is voted President of the
provisional republic. He soon, however, gives up his position to the Qing
dynasty’s sometimes-loyal general Yuan Shikai (Sun Chun), who takes power after bringing about the dynasty’s end.
The history behind the story leads you to believe there is
ample material for a great, epic drama. There are plenty of competing
characters, whose motives and alliances are not always clear, a clash of
foreign and domestic interests, and overlapping economic, political and social
issues. But the film fails to weave this into a coherent narrative. Instead we
have lots of big battle scenes, explained at the start and end with on-screen
print, followed by speeches by key characters that fail both to explain motives
for previous scenes, and fail to move the plot forward. The film also seems
unsure who it is made for. Far too little information is provided for Western
audiences: few, for example, would know what the Tongmenghui – the
revolutionary group leading the revolution – is, or that is goes on to become
the core of the much better known Guomindang. Fewer still are likely to
understand the background of Yuan Shikai, who is portrayed as a sort of
Machiavellian fool. Moreover, the film fails to explain the precursors of the
revolution, except that China was poor and being exploited by foreign powers.
This is true, of course, but we gain no insight into the motivations and
backstories of the main characters, who suffer from basically no character
development. But the film has proved unpopular with Chinese audiences too, who
perhaps are suffering from a deluge of propagandist-historical dramas.
The story around Sun Yatsen is the most historically
significant and Chao is able to garner attention as the dedicated leader of the
revolution. Really, he should have been the star of the film, but it seems that
Chan, as ‘General Director’ (whatever that means), refused to allow the focus
to move away from himself and Huang Xing. There is something to be said for
films that highlight the role of the lesser-known characters of history, and
Huang has an interesting enough story to deserve it, but Chan’s wooden acting
fails to excite.
Much of the cinematography is quite stunning and the
filmmakers have certainly spared no expense in terms of the set design and
special effects, but overall, this film fails to do justice to a monumental
event in Chinese history.