Two Approaches to the New-Generation Patriotic Cinema

Among the festivities for the 60th Anniversary of the People’s Republic, the most talked-about and sought-after film is undoubtedly The Founding of a Republic (Jianguo Daye), which is also the centerpiece of the fifty movies announced by the government-sponsored China Film Group to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Chinese Revolution. Co-directed by Han Sanping, head of the China Film Group, and the Sixth Generation-turned-mainstream director Huang Jianxin, the film traces, or recreates, the history of how sixty years ago Chairman Mao’s revolutionary soldiers overcame Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist Party Kuomintang in the civil war to establish the world’s most enduring Communist revolution.

This so-called “leitmotif commercial blockbuster” breaks the pattern of regular political films with its star-studded cast, featuring nearly 200 of China’s well-beloved film professionals, including action heroes Jackie Chan and Jet Li, international star Zhang Ziyi, comedy king Stephen Chow, and even directors Chen Kaige, Jiang Wen, and Feng Xiaogang. In an interview with South Capital Entertainment Weekly, director Han Sanping proudly calls this film an “ingenious cooperation of politics and commerce.” A report on Chinafilm.com reads “The elder generation watches history; the younger generation counts stars.”

In an illuminating report in The Independent, Cliff Coonan defines the film as both an “A-list extravaganza” and a “stirring propaganda epic,” and gives a good reading of the “moments of subtlety and what appear to be hidden political messages” in the plot. Contextualizing the film in global cinematic propaganda, including Battleship Potemkin (Sergei Eisenstein, 1905), Independence Day (Roland Emmerich, 1996), and, most disturbingly, Triumph of the Will (Leni Riefenstahl, 1934), Coonan notes, “By peppering the picture with stars, its producers hopes to update the patriotic cinema for a new generation.”

In an interview with AFP, Luisa Prudentino, an expert on Chinese cinema, also predicts that the “Jianguo Daye” formula will be the model for future propaganda films. “This allows the authorities to counter Hollywood’s growing influence here by making blockbuster films that make money while also getting their message across to the masses in a more glamorous way,” she said.

On the other end of the spectrum, almost simultaneous to the opening of The Founding of a Republic, controversial artist Ai Weiwei uploaded onto the internet his own “celebration gift film,” Lao Ma Ti Hua (named after a famous Sichuan saying roughly meaning “old mom’s pork feet stew”). This 75-minute documentary, shot with a hidden DV camera, records the bitter and absurd experience of Ai and other witnesses for the human rights activist Tan Zuoren of being harassed and illegally detained by the police of Chengdu (capital of the Sichuan province) at the eve of the court meeting.

The political message is overt. Tan was persecuted for his investigation into the shoddy constructions of the collapsed school buildings at the 5.12 earthquake last year, but here the splendid marble-clad building of the Chengdu municipal police bureau draws sharp contrast with the so-called “tofu crumble” projects at the background. The main part of the documentary records the frustrating and unresolved negotiation of Ai’s group with different parties of the Chengdu police about the release of their detained partner and about a proper explanation of their sufferings–just as Qiu Ju did in the Zhang Yimou film. A police officer managed to say nothing remotely meaningful in hours, often not even complete sentences.

The film ends with a sequence of shaky images when the police forced Ai to surrender his camera in front of the Chengdu Police Station. It’s true to the mode of guerilla filmmaking: the civilian’s desire to record finally triumphs over the authorities’ suppression of the moving image.

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