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“72 Martyrs” is another film released to tie in with the 100th anniversary of the Xinhai Revolution, a turning point in modern Chinese history which played a vital role in bringing down the Qing Dynasty. The film was directed by Derek Chiu, who previously tackled the period through his Sun Yat Sen biopic “Road to Dawn”, and deals in particular with the Huanghuagang Uprising (also known as the Yellow Flower Mound Revolt), an event which famously saw the titular 72 patriots dying for their cause. As with other recent historical offerings, the film has a prestigious cast made up of new faces and acclaimed stars, including Zhao Bing Rui, Tse Kwan Ho (“The Miracle Box”), Eric Tsang (“Bodyguards and Assassins”), Wang Jian Chang, Liu Kai Chi (“The Stool Pigeon”), Irene Wan (“Exodus”) and Elanne Kong (“Rebellion”), with a cameo appearance from Alan Tam.
The film is set in 1910 in Guangzhou, with the Qing Dynasty government doing everything in its power to suppress the spread of rebellion, and follows journalist Pang Da Wei (Tse Kwan Ho) and artist Gao Jian Fu (Liu Kau Chi) as they work hard to organise an assassination attempt on magistrate Li Zhun (Eric Tsang). Sent to join them by Sun Yat Sen is a young man called Luo Zhong Huo (Zhao Bing Rui), who attempts to raise funds for the revolution under the pretence of building an orphanage. To do this, he works his way into the household of rich local businessman Fang Hong Zhi (Wang Jian Chang), working as English tutor to his mistress Mei Xi (Irene Wan). With Mei Xi keen to use Luo to test Fang’s feelings for her, things soon get complicated, and as the likely suicidal uprising draws near everyone involved has to make the difficult decision as to who will lay down their lives.
Although there might be a temptation to lump “72 Martyrs” in with other recent revolutionary themed Chinese historical pieces such as “The Founding of a Republic” and Jackie Chan’s “1911”, it’s actually a very different proposition. Whereas these and other films were epic, sweeping affairs with huge casts of cameo appearance stars, focusing on battles and great victories, Derek Chiu instead takes a far more character driven approach, choosing to spend the running time exploring the lives and efforts of people leading up to the Huanghuagang Uprising, rather than depicting the event itself. This in many ways proves to be a good thing, and the film benefits from not being a showy or bombastic affair, coming across as far less of a nationalistic flag waving exercise and as more of a genuine attempt to examine such a turbulent period. Whilst on the one hand this does mean that the film has a fairly slow and measured pace, the lack of needless action sequences and slow motion heroic death scenes makes it grounded and believable.
“72 Martyrs” is certainly dense and packed with detail, with a great deal going on. Thankfully, despite there being no English subtitles for most of the onscreen text, the film is accessible and reasonably easy to follow, especially for viewers who know anything of the history of the period or who have seen one of the other similarly themed recent films. Oddly, the film never tries to live up to its title, shying away from even mentioning most of the martyrs or people involved in the uprising, though Chiu manages to convey their struggle successfully enough through his choice of characters to focus on. To be fair, the film might have been more dramatic had he spent more time with some of those more directly involved, and things do get a little tangential during the long scenes revolving around Mei Xi and Fang Hong Zhi. However, this fits in with Chiu’s determination to concentrate on the more intimate aspects of the story, and he shows a pleasing avoidance of melodrama throughout.
All of this combines to make “72 Martyrs” an engaging and markedly earnest effort, and a substantial film which deserves to be taken more seriously than other more manipulatively patriotic affairs of late. Whilst as a piece of entertainment it’s more likely to be enjoyed more by those with some knowledge of the subject, and its emotional affect probably depends on the disposition of the viewer, Derek Chiu and the fine cast have done a better job than most at bringing such an important slice of history to life.
Derek Chiu (director) / Wang Mei (screenplay)
CAST: Zhao Bing Rui
Tse Kwan Ho
Wang Jian Chang
Liu Kai Chi