Cinematic makeover for Chinese communism

Mon, Sep 6, 2010, 01:00

A new film aims to show a modern image of China’s Communist Party, writes CLIFFORD COONANin Beijing

TOP CHINESE actor Liu Ye looks uncannily like the young Mao Zedong – with the heartthrob’s hopeful expression reflecting the optimism the young Mao felt in the early days of the Communist Party.

After the huge success of The Founding of a Republic, an epic tribute to the 1949 revolution, China’s top propaganda filmmakers have started shooting The Founding of a Partyto mark the 90th anniversary of the Communist Party’s foundation on July 1st next year.

The film is part of the Communist Party’s efforts to present a modern image of itself, stressing its relevance in a changing China that is Marxist-Leninist in name only. Many of the leading roles will be taken by young actors and singers who have been chosen to appeal to a younger audience and put fresh faces on the icons of Chinese history.

There were some surprising decisions in casting the movie – Tang Wei, who was blacklisted by the Film Bureau for her steamy role in Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution, will star as an early girlfriend of Mao Zedong, marking her gradual rehabilitation.

As with The Founding of a Republic, the film will use stars who will perform for nothing other than the glory of the party and China, and is being made as membership of the party has expanded to 78 million.

“We don’t want people to come to see it because of the anniversary, we just want to do a good movie, telling about an important period of Chinese history,” said Huang Jianxin, who is co-directing the movie with Han Sanping, the powerful head of China Film, the state film company.

“We did a lot of research and analysis of this period and of the characters’ lives, before we started shooting. And we want to attract more young audiences to watch it, since it is a story of young people,” said Mr Huang.

The Founding of a Republic was the most successful Chinese film of last year, taking in €48 million in box office receipts, and was the most successful Chinese film of all time until this year’s earthquake epic Aftershock.

The filmmakers say the aim of the movie is to give a fresh reading of some of the crucial events in that turbulent period in Chinese history. It looks at the reaction in China to the October 1917 revolution in Russia, which inspired young people in the former to practise communism, as well as Chinese studying in Paris and other cities abroad.

The movie covers the period when the revered president Sun Yat-sen established a central government in 1912 after the Qing dynasty collapsed, as well as the efforts by the autocratic general and politician Yuan Shikai to re-establish the imperial system, with himself as emperor, in 1916. It also looks at the May Fourth Movement, an anti-imperialist political and cultural movement that grew out of student demonstrations in Beijing on May 4th, 1919.

As well as featuring many young actors, the movie will also be written by young scriptwriters, as the producers hope to get a youthful perspective on the period.

Tang Guoqiang plays the older Mao, while Chen Kun stars as Chairman Mao’s close ally, Zhou Enlai. Enlai was instrumental in helping Mao in setting up the party and in winning the civil war that led to the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, although their relationship soured in later years.

Zhang Gouli will play Mao’s nemesis, the Kuomintang (KMT) leader Chiang Kai-shek, who lost the civil war and fled to Taiwan. His influential wife, Madame Chiang Kai-shek, will be played by Vivan Wu, while Zhang Hanyu plays Sun Yat-sen, who is an unusual figure in that he is still revered on both sides of the Strait of Taiwan.

Li Qin will star as Yang Kaihui, Mao’s second wife, a particularly important role, as she remains a national hero today. She was captured by the KMT in 1930 and imprisoned, then tortured and killed in front of her son, Mao Anying, when she refused to renounce communism.

Some of Hong Kong’s top actors are also involved, showing their loyalty to the motherland. Andy Lau stars as the warlord and revolutionary Cai E, and Chow Yun-fat plays Yuan Shikai. There are reports Hong Kong director John Woo will play a part.

There is still a question mark over which stars will be paid for taking part, and which will merely be performing their patriotic duty.

“During the last film, The Founding of a Republic, many stars worked for free. But we think in this film, we will pay actors and actresses. I can’t reveal the budget, but it will not pass 100 million yuan (€11.5 million), that is for sure. Of course, we also need to control our budget. But [The Founding of a] Party will cost not less than 10 million yuan,” said Shi Dongming, vice president of China Film Group.

China makes dozens of propaganda films every year, most of them failing to register beyond China, or even beyond the province in which they are made. They are watched by party faithful or as part of a works outing, but rarely inspire much enthusiasm among the general population.

The Founding of a Republictransformed the Chinese propaganda movie in that it was well acted, cleverly scripted and generally entertaining, except for a few tedious scenes to explain various committees and plenums, and some syrupy sentimental moments.

It will be interesting to see whether the latest film can engagingly dramatise the endless committee meetings that characterised the foundation of the Communist Party. One of the most popular tourist sites in the trendy, restored historical area of Xintiandi in Shanghai is the restored building where the first congress of the Chinese Communist Party was held in July 1921.

China has just become the world’s second-largest economy, overtaking Japan, and is growing in power and influence every day, but we know very little about exactly what goes on inside Zhongnanhai, the central enclave of the Communist Party.

With leadership change expected in the next two years, the Communist Party and its workings are attracting fresh interest.

Journalist Richard McGregor’s recent book The Partyhas proven a popular read, and China-watchers are scouring the Chinese media for indications of what kind of leadership transition there will be.

We can only speculate about how decisions are filtered down from the nine-man Standing Committee, to the Politburo, to the Central Committee, and on downwards to the rank and file. All the key decisions in the world’s most populous nation are made by this small and highly secretive group.

The party that Mao Zedong created ruled out capitalism as a way forward for China and persecuted “capitalist roaders” during the Cultural Revolution, while Mao’s successors Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin reformed the party to permit “socialism with Chinese characteristics” – the state capitalism that holds sway in China today.

The Founding of a Partyis unlikely to provide any major insights into the decision-making process in today’s party, but its producers, and Chinese audiences, hope it succeeds in dramatising a fascinating period of Chinese history in an easily digestible way.

Online, there is a lot of curiosity about the movie.

“People have an open mind on this kind of propaganda movie since The Founding of a Republicsucceeded in combining advocating a message with commercial thinking. Many people want to see the movie because they are fans of the young actors and are curious to know how those important historical personages can be portrayed by these young faces,” wrote one anonymous online commentator.

Another said it would be amusing to see a “historical body wearing fashionable clothes”. But star appeal looks likely to be key. “I just can’t wait to count the stars,” wrote another blogger.