Made to commemorate the one hundredth anniversary of the Xinhai Revolution that freed China from the corrupt Qing Dynasty, this sprawling historical epic opens with the execution of Qiu Jin (Ning Jing), the celebrated, so-called mother of the revolution whose life story was recounted in greater detail recently in The Woman Knight of Mirror Lake (2011). Following the disastrous Second Guanghzou Uprising which ended with the death of seventy-two revolutionaries, Dr. Sun Yat-Sen (Winston Chao), chief architect of the Republican cause, struggles to rally the remnants of his Tongmenghui (united league) in Shanghai. Meanwhile in China, Sun’s close friend and stalwart ally Huang Xing (Jackie Chan) escapes alongside fiesty female revolutionary Xu Zhonghan (Li Bing Bing), who poses as his wife. A few years later, Huang Xing returns to lead troops fighting on the front line of the revolution, while Sun Yat-Sen leaves the United States for Britain where he tries to persuade Europe’s great colonial powers to cease funding the Qing regime led by the despotic Empress Dowager (Joan Chen), on behalf of the child emperor Pu Yi (Su Han-Ye).
During another centenary, the centenary of cinema in 1996, filmmakers around the world were polled for their personal choice of the ten best films of all time. Few lists were as eclectic as that of Jackie Chan who, alongside The General (1926), A Pocketful of Miracles (1961) and Jurassic Park (1993), also singled out War and Peace (1956) and Lawrence of Arabia (1962) hinting that beneath his crowd-pleasing exterior lay the desire to craft a more ambitious kind of film. 1911 seems like the grandiose epic Jackie always wanted to make although arrives among a recent wave of patriotic blockbusters celebrating the Xinhai revolution, including the similarly star-studded The Founding of a Republic (2009) and Beginning of the Great Revival (2011), all of which draw from the same well as the equally extravagant Shaw Brothers epic, The Battle for the Republic of China (1981).
Far from a vanity project, the film’s focus lies away from the actor-director and on multitude of other real historical characters headed by republican founding father Sun Yat-Sen, particularly in the international cut which curtails the Doctor Zhivago-like romance between Huang Xing and Zhonghan. Handsomely crafted, the film ranks as Chan’s most mature work to date as, working with cinematographer and co-director Li Zhang, the star curbs his populist instincts and largely adheres to the eloquent, ambitious script that tackles the sociopolitical, economic and dramatic aspects of the conflict, capturing the chaos, confusion and fervour of revolution in admittedly episodic recreation of real historical events that will likely play best to a Chinese audience familiar with the specifics and leave casual viewers expecting a typical Jackie Chan action romp, completely baffled.
Rather than restrict itself to a single viewpoint, the film attempts an all-encompassing panorama as the sprawling plot rattles through almost a hundred major characters at a rapid clip, lifting an idea from Kihachi Okamoto’s celebrated The Battle of Okinawa (1971) by accompanying the historical players with captions and biographical details. Contrary to the hysterical reaction in some quarters, the film is not a piece of communist propaganda (especially given Sun Yat-Sen’s political leanings were quite different) but is explicitly anti-imperialist including a scene where Sun Yat-Sen quite eloquently denounces foreign interference in China’s struggle. On the other hand, the film gives equal weight to Sun’s friendship with Homer Lea (Michael Lacidonia) the American hunchbacked civil war veteran who served as a military strategist for the republican cause, though again the international cut edits this to the point of incoherence and the fascinating role is awkwardly played by the actor.
Jackie Chan’s command of the cinematic medium has greatly advanced since his last directorial outing, Who Am I? (1998), incorporating elements from notable works by David Lean, King Vidor, Lewis Milestone, Li Han-hsiang, Steven Spielberg, Chang Cheh and Bernardo Bertolucci although the turbo-charged pace and frantic editing is entirely his own. He also can’t resist throwing in a single scene of kung fu action wherein Huang battles a band of would-be assassins in the bowels of an ocean liner, though it doesn’t damage the film in the least and provides some welcome light relief. Typically for a Jackie Chan project, the film is concerned with making audiences feel the weight of suffering and sacrifice on the hard road towards eventual triumph but its sheer density occasionally overwhelms and prevents this being the masterpiece it could have been.