‘The Founding of an Army’ (‘Jian Jun Da Ye’): Film Review

Hong Kong helmer Andrew Lau (‘Infernal Affairs’) turns ‘The Founding of an Army’ from a state-backed celebration of the Chinese military into a genre-infused blockbuster.

In theory, Founding of an Army is part of an ongoing, officially sanctioned Chinese film series about the country’s recent history, a follow-up to The Founding of a Republic (2009, about the establishment of the communist state in 1949) and Beginning of the Great Revival (2011, about the formation of the Chinese Communist Party in 1921).

In practice, however, the film should be seen as Bona Film Group’s latest attempt to rework China’s dogmatic, verbose and thoroughly pro-establishment “main melody cinema” into a bona fide blockbuster. Just like the company’s two previous neo-propaganda outings, The Taking of Tiger Mountain (2014) and Operation Mekong (2016), directed by Hongkongers Tsui Hark and Dante Lam respectively, The Founding of An Army is a genre-fuelled spectacle with scintillating action scenes and self-sacrificing heroes aplenty.

The Bottom Line

Commercially robust yet ideologically loyal reworking of Chinese propaganda cinema.

Directed by Andrew Lau of Infernal Affairs fame, it is carefully calibrated to fascinate China’s young cinema-going demographic, casting the country’s most popular heartthrobs to strike poses and play hero in the film’s stupendously choreographed battle scenes. Such star power and firepower is perhaps necessary to attract younger generations with minimum knowledge or interest of the political upheavals and chicanery of 1920s China.

Being released July 28 to mark the 90th anniversary of the establishment of the Chinese Communist Party’s very own armed forces, The Founding of An Army is expected to be given whatever state-sanctioned push is necessary in order to triumph at the box office — something the Chinese authorities, distributors and cinema operators took to extremes last time around with Beginning of the Great Revival. (Ominously, the film counts fewer “likes” on China’s online film portal mtime.com than two homegrown, kids-oriented animation films opening on the same day.)

Whatever its domestic results, Army might face an uphill battle beyond its own shores, apart from the traction it might receive from the overseas Chinese diaspora and fans of the director and his cast.

Historians and film academics can analyze Army‘s meaning and political relevance at length. One surprise is the positive representation of a young Lin Biao, whom the Chinese authorities still consider a power-hungry usurper who spearheaded the chaos of the Cultural Revolution. Another pastime could be comparing Army‘s artistic and political point of view with that of other summertime war tentpoles such as Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk and Ryoo Seung-wan’s Battleship Island.

Army is anchored in three historical events of 1927, deployed here to represent the Chinese Red Army’s foundational myths: its revolutionary credo, military prowess and moral selflessness.

The film begins on April 12, 1927, the day when the right-wing military leader Chiang Kai-shek sent his combat units and his underworld associates to annihilate left-wing activists in Shanghai. The bloody purge convinced the Communists of the need to create their own military forces, and Lau offers an audacious, highly stylized way of depicting this. By switching the action from the deadly carnage on the streets, to a standoff in a church between officers with different loyalties and a deadly dinner in a mobster’s mansion, he infuses Army with the genre gloss he has honed to near-perfection in his thrillers and gangster flicks (such as The Last Tycoon, also set in Shanghai in the 1920s).

The visceral violence in this opening salvo — soldiers machine-gunning and beheading demonstrators, a warship bombarding a left-leaning publishing house, mobsters hacking activists to death on wide boulevards — continues unabated in the showpiece. Set on the day when the Chinese communists displayed their steel will by rebelling against and defeating the right-leaning authorities, the Nanchang Uprising of Aug. 1 is re-enacted with remarkably executed stunts, pyrotechnics and plenty of digitally enhanced aerial shots.

But there’s only so much Lau could play with in a production overseen by China’s official film body, China Film Company, and the army’s own August First Film Studio. The gritty finale, set during the three-day Battle of Sanheba in October 1927, closely resembles the old-school celebration of heroism promoted in the “main melody” propaganda films of yore. There’s no place for even the slightest hint of cowardice or hesitation among commanding officers and infantrymen giving their all in the trenches and sometimes above them, such as when a general launches himself over the parapet to usher his underlings to safety. 

Linking the set pieces are the scenes depicting the conversations, collaborations and conspiracies involving the major political figures on both sides of the political divide. Liu Ye, who starred in Revival, returns as the roguish, romantic and guru-like Mao Zedong. Other personalities — whose ages in 1927 appear onscreen alongside their names as they make their entrance — are embodied by a younger cast of pop idols.

In addition to some slight adjustments to the official historical accounts of the communist struggle in China in the 1920s, purists might balk at how Zhou Enlai (Zhu Yawen), Lin Biao (Ma Tianyu), Chiang Kai-shek (Wallace Huo), Soong Mei-ling (Zhang Tianai) and Deng Xiaoping (Dong Zhijian) dress, walk and talk. Certainly, they are a vivid illustration of patriotic propaganda with Chinese characteristics in the 21st century. Mao, who is seen criticizing old-school Marxism as not entirely applicable to China, would probably agree.

Production company: Bona Film Group, in a presentation with China Film Co., Nanchang Broadcasting Television, August First Film Studio, Shanghai Real Thing Media, Media Asia Film Production
Cast: Liu Ye, Zhu Yawen, Huang Zhizhong, Ma Tinayu, Zhang Hanyu
Director: Andrew Lau
Screenwriters: Han Sanping, Huang Yin, Dong Zhe, Zhao Ningyu
Producers: Yu Dong, Huang Jianxin
Executive producers: La Peikang, Yu Dong, Zhang Jinjie, Zhang Fanjun, Ren Ning, Peter Lam
Directors of photography: Andrew Lau, Edmond Fung
Production designer: Zhao Hai
Costume designer: Chen Tongxun
Music: Chan Kwong-wing
Editor: Azrael Chung
Sales: Media Asia Film Distribution

In Mandarin, Cantonese and Russian
131 minutes