Film Review: 1911

Plodding account of how a rebel uprising led by Sun Yat-Sen helped overthrow the Qing dynasty in China.

The latest in a stream of propaganda-oriented films celebrating the centennial of turning points in Chinese politics, 1911 is lavishly mounted but dramatically disappointing. Loud, chaotic battle scenes can't make up for an episodic storyline that portrays historical characters as stick figures. The film fared poorly in Asian markets and will do even worse here.

Screenwriters Wang Xingdong and Chen Baoguang have broken the narrative into three main storylines. One follows Sun Yat-Sen (Winston Chao) as he travels to San Francisco and London to secure backing for the Tongmenghui, or Revolutionary Alliance. A second focuses on Huang Xing (Jackie Chan), a rebel officer who participates in two of the key battles in the uprising. A third shows the Imperial Court of the Qing Dynasty, where Empress Dowager Lingyu (Joan Chen) and her ministers struggle to hold onto power.

The Sun Yat-Sen storyline has some of the movie's worst acting, as poorly cast Caucasians mince and sneer before the Chinese politician, their dialogue badly post-dubbed. Scenes in the court of the Empress, on the other hand, crackle with fear and animosity, Qing officials providing easy targets for contemporary critics.

The Huang Xing scenes include well-mounted battle sequences, as well as prolonged montages of heroic but doomed rebels writing final letters to families, cavorting on beaches, or being tortured by enemies. But the material is hard to follow and often doesn't ring true. The filmmakers try to wring out too much emotion from clichéd moments, and can't resist punctuating scenes with banal touches, like the tear-streaked face of a child in a crowd of onlookers.

Huang is a rare dramatic role for Jackie Chan (he does interject one brief martial-arts scene late in the movie), and while he's credible enough, his character is almost featureless. Ditto for Li Bingbing, who plays a spy posing as Huang's wife. Whether through design or omission, their relationship is a blank. The film's best acting comes from Sun Chun, who delivers a nuanced portrayal of General Yuan Shikai, a pivotal figure in the success of the uprising. The film's closing scenes, in which Yuan Shikai and Sun Yat-Sen battle behind the scenes to determine who will lead the new China, build up a surprising amount of momentum.

Overall, 1911 feels more like a missed opportunity than a compelling movie. The events of the period certainly deserve film treatment, as Bernardo Bertolucci proved with The Last Emperor. But for Western viewers, 1911 will be significant primarily for reducing Jackie Chan, one of the world's great screen presences, to near-anonymity.