“1911” is a milestone film in two very important ways, marking the 100th anniversary of the Xinhai Revolution and the 100th outing for the legendary Jackie Chan, his first as director since “Who Am I?” back in 1998. Charting one of the major turning points in the development of modern China, the film is another in the recent line of big budget patriotic epics, following in the footsteps of the hits “Founding of the Republic” and “Beginning of the Great Revival”, showing the same kind of celebratory air and attention to historical detail. With Chan headlining in a dramatic role, the film also packs in an impressive cast of popular Chinese stars, including Winston Chao (here playing Sun Yat Sen for the fourth time), Li Bing Bing (“Detective Dee”), Jiang Wu (“Let the Bullets Fly”), Joan Chen (“Lust, Caution”), Hu Ge (“Butterfly Lovers”), and his son Jaycee Chan (“Break Up Club”).
In charting the 1911 Xinhai Revolution, film splits its focus between Sun Yat Sen raising funds in Europe and acting as the political figurehead for the uprising, and Chan as his friend Huang Xing, who actually led the troops on the battlefield as they took on the Qing Dynasty and the Empress Dowager (Joan Chen). Kicking off in 1910, the plot begins with the Huanghuagang Uprising in Guangzhou by Huang Xing and the Tongmenghui, which though unsuccessful sowed the seeds for further battles, and moves on to follow the spread of the revolution, the various factions and machinations involved in the overthrow of the government, and Sun Yat Sen’s rise to leadership.
“1911” is unsurprisingly pretty far removed from what might be expected of the average Jackie Chan film, and is every bit the serious Chinese epic, with a huge cast of historical figures, many of whom are fleetingly introduced via on screen text. This may make the film somewhat daunting for anyone unfamiliar with the period covered, though it does give it an air of authenticity, especially with judicious use of the pause button. On this score, the film also benefits from having a lower number of famous faces and bit part cameos than “Founding of the Republic” and “Beginning of the Great Revival”, which though fun were somewhat distracting – though some of the comically dreadful western actors who seem to have been dragged in off the street do undermine some of the more dramatic scenes involving Sun Yat Sen in Europe. Thankfully, the main cast members, Chan included, are all on good form, and despite the presence of the megastar the film never comes across as a vehicle or vanity piece, with some well chosen storytelling techniques and a shifting focus between Sun and Huang Xin that holds the interest throughout and prevents things from ever feeling too much like a flag waving history lesson.
Chan also does a good job as director, with a co-credit for TV helmer Zhang Li, managing to keep things moving along efficiently and combining some weighty dramatic material with large scale battle scenes. The latter are frequently spectacular, though Chan wisely goes for a gritty look rather than too much slow motion or anything too over-choreographed, and some bloody bullet wounds and severed limbs add a welcome tough edge and underline the theme of sacrifice. These are rather at odds with a few pointless flashes of martial arts action which Chan felt the need to throw in, though these are kind of fun and never quite wacky enough to truly grate. Production values are top notch throughout, and the film is a handsome affair with good use of sets, Chan using this to successfully recreate the period in convincing fashion, making for a prestige blockbuster feel.
“1911” is certainly up to the same standard of “Founding of the Republic” and “Beginning of the Great Revival”, and should be enjoyed by viewers interested in fiercely patriotic takes on modern Chinese history and looking for more of the same. Offering something a little different than might have been expected from Jackie Chan as actor and director, it shows the star taking another solid step in his continuing maturation, and as being capable of far more than crazy kung fu stunts and face pulling.
Jackie Chan, Li Zhang (director)
CAST: Jackie Chan … Huang Xing
Bingbing Li … Xu Zonghan
Winston Chao … Sun Yat-Sen
Joan Chen … Longyu
Jaycee Chan … Zhang Zhenwu