1911 is a sprawling epic detailing the Chinese Revolution that overthrew dynastic rule and led to the establishment of the Republic of China. Jackie Chan co-directs and stars as a revolutionary who fought valiantly and tenaciously in the battles that spanned 1911 and 1912.
The origin and background of the Revolution of 1911 is varied and wide-ranging. Racial, political and social tensions were all factors but sentiment crystallized around the Qing Dynasty’s corruption and weakness. As the film portrays it, it was in the interest of the people and the nation to remove imperial rule and form a republic of men. The size of the country and the scope of the Revolution’s objective produced a complicated series of events with many players and factions. Squeaking in at just under two hours, the film attempts to capture the key developments of the Revolution.
The result is a film that is more an illustration of a historic timeline than a narrative story. Rallies in the United States, backroom dealings in Europe and bloody battles in China are punctuated by explanatory captions. The film is filled with moments of rousing rhetoric, impassioned debate and violent fighting but the lack of exposition and context render them as static tableaus rather than dramatic development. Elaborate sets and ornate costumes make for a magnificent-looking film.
Despite a large cast, sagacious casting ensures that the major figures stand out. As the revolutionary leader Sun Yat-Sen, Winston Chao exudes force of character, conviction and gravitas even when the dialogue fails him. Chun Sun, as the general leading the Qing forces, dominates his scenes as a greedy, grasping and conniving deal-maker. In a lesser role, Joan Chen presents the Dowager Empress as a weary remnant of former imperial glory. Unfortunately, Jackie Chan is cast against type. Chan is not an especially talented actor but his exuberance and sense of humour, along with his martial arts abilities, have made him an endearing and appealing figure; none of that is displayed in this film where he plays the sober and stoic revolutionary fighter Huang Xing.
Perhaps the complex nature of the material would have better suited a mini-series rather than a two-hour film but 1911 is a very ambitious project that does not quite make its mark. Running at a high emotional pitch throughout its duration, it is a sumptuous but ponderous melodrama that may find you restless in your seat before the end.
Screening at the TIFF Bell Lightbox from October 7 to 13, 2011.