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The 1911 Chinese Revolution

Updated on June 11, 2012

1911 (2011) is about the founding of the Chinese Republic after thousands of years of autocratic rule. Practically the only lasting criticism of the film is that, at 99 minutes, it is far too short. The subject matter could hardly be more profound. That it stars and was co-directed by Jackie Chan, however, poses a problem for American audiences. The funny, heartwarming, acrobat is indeed missed. But he is out of place in the Forbidden City. Hence his reincarnation as Huang Xing, a Nationalist officer, military mind, and common Chinese. Mr. Chan's participation in this extravaganza causes one to wonder about the relationship between a man and his people. Did 1911 fulfill a deeply felt obligation beyond the petty requisites of crass commercialism?

Realizing $55,000 on its opening weekend release after nearly $20M worth of investment suggests that something more was at stake than box office. So what was it? China's historical attachment to the past is well known. Its leanings toward class hierarchies and family reigns with lords and ladies, exquisite coats of arms, and all the hypocritical trappings of human infallibility is also a given. Not long ago, baby boomers had to read The Good Earth (Pearl S. Buck, 1931) and learn to comment on its poignant descriptions of oppressive peasant life. Also, ancient history buffs know that Rome was originally conceived as a republic, separate and distinct from Oriental despotism. It must have been the irrepressible human spirit that both inspired the revolutionaries and, a hundred years later, motivated filmmakers.

It is hard to decide if the Chinese rose or the Qing Dynasty fell. For one thing, the latter was hard-pressed for money, and its army, despite obsequious professions of faith and loyalty, would not move a muscle without a war chest. On the other hand, the initial, Wuchang uprising met with deadly force. The resultant corpses of martyrs were thrown into the Hanjiang or Yangtze River and then later recovered. Needless to add, the nationalization of the Sichuan railway, dependent upon foreign loans, only fanned the flames of anti-Qing sentiment. Why a railroad, however tangible, instead of fraternity, equality, and liberty? It seems that Chinese imperialists were never meant to extend their sovereignty into the twentieth century. Time left them behind. This is exactly what happened as well as the main substance of the movie. Ultimately, Sun Yat-Sen's Nationalists triumphed. The movie ends.

In reality, troubles continued. That the Nationalists were also destined to collapse probably could not have been anticipated. By 1949, Mao would deliver practically the whole of China to the Communists. Whereas the Communist Party has lost power in Russia, perhaps only temporarily, it continues to hold a firm grip on China. And despite dissidence and attention-grabbing headlines in the news, Communist China promises to be a thorn in the side of ardent capitalists for the foreseeable future. Its unique system is more active, diverse, and profitable than capitalism in many "free" countries. There are downtrends, sure, but nothing like crisis-ridden Europe. Red, mainland China steadily maintains a peaceful economy involving huge numbers that countries immersed in the opposing, roller-coaster cycles of bust and boom could not even imagine. While workers of the world cry out for jobs, the Chinese are all at work, gainfully employed.

The scene that explains the situation in China in 1911 occurs somewhere in the middle. At an outdoor repast, a British Parliamentarian advises Sun Yat-Sen to behave himself. But he insists on speaking passionately on behalf of the Chinese against the Qing. He likens China to a roast lamb, then carves it, distributing slices to the various foreign representatives assembled round a table. And the Chinese laborers? Well, eventually they are reduced to bones. Later, when the Empress abdicates, she notes that the Chinese are not guillotining the royalty. True, but by what logic do they afterwards shower the Qing with silver taels? 1911 is a very good movie, but the gap between eastern and western philosophies remains unbridged.

Short-hand is a permanent characteristic of most movies. Several key battles and acts of bravery make the final cut, but not enough to satisfy a curious appetite. In recompense, many shots and sequences are hyper-artistic and baroque, making ample use of slow-motion, music, costumes, unusual camera positions, bilingual titles, and framing. To be honest, 1911 could well have been much more elaborate. Nevertheless, Picasso's depiction of Guernica, lest it be forgot, consisted of a single canvas.

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