The Founding of an Army 建軍大業 (2017)

Mainland/Hong Kong

Director: Andrew Lau Wai-Keung  劉偉強

Studio: China Film Group 中國電影集團, Bona Film Group 保利博納, August First 八一 et al.

Language: Mandarin 普通話

Genre: War/History

Running Time: 133 minutes

Not Recommended.

Shanghai, 1926. The First United Front between the Kuomintang (KMT) and the Communist Party of China (CPC) comes to a crushing end. With the aid of Shanghai’s notorious Green Gang, Chiang Kai-shek 蔣介石 orders many of the leaders of the CPC to be killed or arrested, solidifying his position as China’s most powerful leader, and weakening rival factions within the KMT.

However, Chiang’s purge did not include all of the CPC’s leaders, and has angered many within his own party.

Inspired by the words of a little known representative from Hunan, Mao Zedong 毛澤東, several recent KMT defectors and CPC veterans unite under the charismatic leadership of Shanghai survivor Zhou Enlai 周恩來 and veteran Zhu De 朱德 to stage an uprising in Nanchang.

But the the KMT and Chiang Kai-shek are not going to let them go without a fight….

We were not eager to watch The Founding of an Army. The couple of friends who had watched it in Chinese cinemas had given less than stellar reviews; something that is backed up by critic reviews you will find online. And, they were right. This is a bad movie. However, it does make for an interesting discussion piece on Chinese cinema, and particularly state-led projects.

The third and final part of the trilogy of The Founding of films (alongside 2009’s The Founding of a Republic and 2011’s The Founding of a Party), this year’s effort brings a conclusion to this cinematic celebration of the foundations of modern China: the state, the party and, finally, the army.

This reviewer was living in China for the release of the first instalment, and can recall it creating a fair amount of buzz (and not just in government-led media). It had an all-star cast, a literal who’s who of Chinese cinema, even if stars such as Jackie Chan, Andy Lau and Zhang Ziyi only had the briefest of cameos. The film itself was forgettable and unsurprisingly hardly an accurate retelling of events; however, it spoke to the wealth of talent available when the best from throughout the Chinese-speaking world came together.

Fast forward two instalments and it’s fair to say the hype has died down. The Founding of an Army is bereft of the star power the first two instalments had, instead mixing a few old faces with a number of up-and-coming idols.  While I can understand the logic behind such a decision, trying to lure in the younger crowd who make up the majority of cinema goers, it’s fair to say it did not have the desired effect.

Audience reaction to the film was so bad, that comments on China’s main film website (think IMDB), Douban, were shut down. That’s for those who actually went to see the film, which, despite only competing with other domestic films performed abysmally at the box office, losing out to the patriotic action of Wolf Warrior 2. It even had official complaints made against it by relatives of the revolutionary heroes it aims to depict, who took umbrage at the use of pretty boy idols and total disregard of facts.

To be fair to The Founding of an Army, it’s hardly unusual for cinema to do away with facts in the name of a good story. Unfortunately it never really seems to find one.

We here at The Chinese Cinema Blog obviously have a great interest in China’s history, it’s politics etc. But even for us, the whirlwind of characters that are introduced is disorientating. From Zhou Enlai, to Mao, to Chiang, to He Long, back to Zhou, to Zhu De, this film jumps around constantly and without mercy, but in doing so it takes many compelling stories and makes each one utterly limp. This leaves little room for actors or director to work with, resulting in cut and paste stereotypes of everyone involved. Even the action scenes, presumably the strength of a war film, suffer from a lack of focus.

As such, we cannot recommend this film to anyone who wants to be entertained, or to watch a good piece of cinema.

All is not lost, however. If you are interested in how the CPC wants to project its own history, and in turn, China’s history, The Founding of an Army is an interesting study. The events upon which it is based were mostly a series of ever worsening defeats for the party’s fledgling armed forces, but watching this film gives you an idea of how such events have been transformed into a victory in the national narrative. So, despite its seeming lack of cinematic value, there still might be something to learn amongst the wreckage.

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