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Originally published Thursday, June 23, 2011 at 3:02 PM

Movie review

'The Beginning of the Great Revival': Chinese history gets lost in translation

A movie review of "The Beginning of the Great Revival," a costly, sometimes spectacular, emotionally remote Chinese production about the beginnings of the Chinese Communist Party, 1911-1921.

Special to The Seattle Times

Movie review 2 stars

'The Beginning of the Great Revival,' with John Woo, Liu Ye, Chow Yun-fat. Directed by Han Sanping and Huang Jianxin, from a screenplay by Dong Zhe and Guo Junli. 124 minutes. Not rated; contains street violence and large-scale battle scenes. In Chinese, with English subtitles. Pacific Place.

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Originally titled "The Founding of a Party," this costly, sometimes spectacular, emotionally remote Chinese production looks back at the beginnings of the Chinese Communist Party, 1911-1921.

A follow-up to 2009's "The Founding of a Republic," it features several famous names, including Chow Yun-fat, Andy Lau and director John Woo ("Face/Off").

Woo probably should have directed "The Beginning of the Great Revival" as well. Surely he would have done something to juice up an exposition-heavy script that leans on subtitles and speeches to tell a story.

It's the kind of movie in which major players are introduced with lines like "Isn't he the renowned academic?" Perhaps the translation is at fault here, but why does the dialogue consistently do so little to flesh out the characters?

Hardly any of the actors are given the opportunity to build a performance and establish a character. One exception is Liu Ye (Prince Wan in "Curse of the Golden Flower"), who plays the young Mao Zedong. The movie introduces Mao early and establishes him as a major force.

Still, you'd never guess from this script that, in the words of his biographers, Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, "Mao was responsible for well over 70 million deaths in peacetime." In their heavily researched 2005 book, "Mao," they contend that "absolute selfishness and irresponsibility lay at the heart of Mao's outlook."

The scale of the production is the film's chief attraction. Casts of thousands are used to create a sense of sweep, especially in the battle scenes, but nothing here surpasses the beauty of "The Last Emperor" or the brilliance of "Battleship Potemkin."

John Hartl:

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