The press materials for 1911 promise that “no expense was spared and no detail ignored in its quest for historical accuracy.” That may be true, but it does not make 1911 anything less than a messy epic.
Working more as a dramatized Wikipedia entry, 1911 tells the story of the overthrow of the Qing Dynasty. The film focuses mainly on rebel military leader Huang Xing (Jackie Chan) and his relationship with doctor and the future Chinese President Sun Yat-Sen (Winston Chao) as they struggle to win military and political battles in 1911. The melodrama is thick. As revolutionary skirmishes rage in China, Sun travels abroad to San Francisco to raise funds for the rebellion. Back on the homeland, Huang valiantly leads his ragtag forces against the Qing Dynasty’s modern army, initially suffering defeat and many casualties. The emotional wounds take their toll, but Huang continues and the revolutionary forces grow.
Meanwhile, Sun’s importance on the world stage waxes. In a series of wince-inducing political meetings, Sun is shown lecturing ambassadors from other countries about the realities in China. The geopolitical subplot involves the Qing Dynasty’s reliance on foreign investment in the form of loans to modernize its army and put down revolt. The ambassadors and representatives of foreign nations are shown as clueless and pompous next to the selfless (a word that is used many times in the dialogue) Sun. This all may be true, but the one-sided manner in which the political realities are presented rings hollow and will unintentionally elicit chuckles from viewers.
But the worst thing is that the juxtaposition of the war-story against the political one is uneven and boring. Yes, as thrilling as the war sequences are, they are so hard to follow that when characters fall in battle the emotional effect is nil. For example, in one battle sequence Huang and his forces are pinned down by opponents from a heavily armored bunker. A machine gun Huang is using begins to overheat, so, Huang orders his men to relieve themselves on it. This may be a good method of cooling down the gun, but it breaks up the intensity of the sequence. I was laughing when I should have been riveted. Another scene has Huang wandering into a hospital where rebels are being treated. A nurse comforts an injured rebel while another nurse saws his leg off. The sound of the saw is horrifying. But since the audience has no connection to the injured soldier, the purpose of the scene is unclear. (Yes, war is terrible, but random sequences placed without context have little impact.)
1911 is in Cantonese with English subtitles. The version I watched had two different subtitles, one in English. The pacing of the film and sheer number of cuts make keeping up with the action and reading extremely difficult. This is further complicated by paragraphs of lengthy exposition. Seriously, at many points throughout the movie, there are paragraphs that explain what is going on. Worse, these explanatory paragraphs run together with dialogue. At times, a viewer is expected to watch the action, read the paragraph, and read the subtitles for the dialogue. In one or two instances, the competition for viewer attention is divided in at least four different ways: a title identifying the character, a paragraph explaining the scene, dialogue subtitles, and the action visually running beneath it all. It is heavy lifting for even the most talented of multi-taskers.
The movie is co-directed by Jackie Chan and cinematographer Li Zhang (Red Cliff). The cinematography ranges from outstanding to confusing mainly due to the editing. During the dubbed sequences, the editing is choppy and the camera never seems to stop moving. It is distracting and smacked of an attempt to conceal the mouths of the actors who are being dubbed. The war sequences are extremely well captured, showing great promise as they became larger and larger in scope, but that momentum is undercut by a political subplot that lacks genuine pathos and connection to the battles. For example, a scene where Sun lectures diplomats is followed by a battle sequence that has no connection with the lecture. A warlord, who has thrown in with the rebels, smashes vases in an angry tirade, then more diplomacy and then another war sequence. Very little battle planning is shown, there are no maps explaining where a battlefields are located, and no military generals shown grappling with tactics. It is a thrown-together mess. Chinese viewers certainly have a short-hand for the history, but I suspect that U.S. audiences will be left out in the cold. A trip to Wikipedia might be a good pre-screening primer.
1911 is Jackie Chan’s 100th film. Sadly, his sincere work on screen falls flat. It should come as no surprise that China has chosen Zhang Yimou’s period epic The Flowers of War, starring Christian Bale as their Oscar candidate. That’s probably wise. Chan and his country deserve a better revolutionary historical epic.