If this summer's cycle of superhero retreads, reboots and launches has you down, consider this: the Chinese government has set aside nearly every screen in the country for The Beginning of the Great Rival, going so far as to hold off the releases of Transformers: Dark Side of the Moon and the seventh Harry Potter for a month, the better to convince 30 million people (the desired number of viewers) to show up for a lifelessly hagiographic portrait of the founding of the Communist Party of China. Rumors of businesses buying tickets for all their employees and sending them to screenings suggest the film will perform well enough to gratify party officials, but for American viewers with choices (limited as they are), there's no incentive to sit through a film mostly consisting of agitated speeches about Marxist-Leninist revolution. The big draw otherwise is the string of star cameos—there are some 170 parts, many of them non-speaking—but those will be lost on viewers unfamiliar with mainland Chinese cinema. Commercial prospects here are dim.
A sort of prequel to 2009's The Founding of a Republic, which celebrated the 60th anniversary of Mao's rise with a selective look back at Chinese history from 1945-1949, Beginning of the Great Revival reteams co-directors Han Sanping (a veteran producer who's worked with heavyweights like John Woo, one of many cameos here) and Huang Juanxin, whose films were regularly censored and repressed in the ‘90s. Their task is to cover 1911-1920's political trajectory while packing in as many bit parts as possible. Extrapolating a coherent dramatic flow as such is unfeasible: though young Mao Zedong (Liu Ye, an uncanny lookalike) is the obvious throughline, he's as much reactive as a leader, mostly asserting himself in occasional speeches rather than action.
That's the model for the film itself, which keeps throwing up identifying title cards for each historical character. Though the film eventually settles into a torpor, the first hour proceeds with often disconcerting speed, with weeks passing from one shot's title card to the next. At one point, Mao discusses leaving China for a while with his sweetheart, concluding with a title announcing the date Mao returned, all while he's still onscreen. The lack of characterization will leave viewers dependent on their knowledge of Chinese history, or doomed by their lack thereof; there's simply no time for coherent narrative arcs.
Aside from one surprisingly gonzo war sequence, the film eventually devolves into repetitive speeches about the viability of Russia's success at implementing Marxist-Leninist thought as a model for China's own reshaping. This is occasionally supplemented with impassioned quotations from The Communist Manifesto. The tone is patriotic to the point of paranoia: the opening shot watches storm clouds as a title card reminds viewers that the film begins at a time when China is beset by threats from outsiders, while the closing shot presents the Chinese flag in gigantic close-up. For viewers denied the knowledge needed to appreciate the numerous bit parts by comic performers in ostensibly serious parts, there's not much to enjoy. The egregiously Forrest Gump-y score strains for sweep, but the vision is strikingly constrained by speeches of the stalest rhetoric. There hasn't been such an egregiously self-congratulating piece of Communist propaganda since, arguably, the peak of '60s Soviet musicals, but Revival is so repetitive and po-faced that there's no kitsch value to be had.
Distributor: Golden Lion
Cast: Chow Yun-Fat, Chen Kun, Liu Ye, Zhou Xun, Shaohua Ma, Mu-yuan Qiu
Director: Han Sanping, Huang Jianxin
Screenwriters: Dong Zhe, Guo Junli, Huang Xin
Producers: Han Sanping (executive), Hongsi Lu (executive)
Genre: Drama; Mandarin-language, subtitled
Running time: 124 min.
Release date: June 24 ltd.