REVIEW: 1911, Jackie Chan's 100th Movie, a Dour Historical Affair

Movieline Score: 4

1911 may be filled with lavish battle sequences and scenes involving masses of extras in picture perfect period garb, but the most breathtaking thing about Jackie Chan's 100th film is how indifferent it is to international audiences. The Chinese blockbuster hasn't needed or necessarily even sought out multinational success of late -- if homegrown hits from the last few years like earthquake disaster drama Aftershock and romantic comedy If You Are The One and its sequel (all three of which happen to share the same director, Feng Xiaogang) don't sound familiar, that's because they've gotten nominal American releases or none at all. For U.S. markets, foreign still equals arthouse, and films that fall outside of that equation often confound studios and audiences who aren't sure which niche subtitled mainstream fare should fall into.

Other than the draw of Chan, who plays a lead role and also co-directed the film with Zhang Li (getting his first directorial credit after having served as cinematographer on pictures like The Banquet and Red Cliff), it's a bit of a surprise that 1911 is gracing U.S. theaters at all. The film is about and made in honor of the 100th anniversary of the Xinhai Revolution, which brought about the end of the Qing dynasty after the abdication of the child Emperor Puyi, whose life was chronicled in Bertolucci's The Last Emperor. Joan Chen is Empress Dowager Longyu, overseeing the crumbling dynasty the boy is set to inherit; Winston Chao plays Sun Yat-Sen, the "Father of the Nation" of modern China; and Chan plays revolutionary leader Huang Xing. Li Bingbing and Chan's son Jaycee also play rebels -- maybe? 1911 offers a dizzying avalanche of historical characters, often introduced on screen by name with a subtitle like "Member of Tongmenghui." Some reappear later, some don't, some die almost immediately after their identity is displayed, as if it should be taken for granted that, once we know who they are, we can mentally call up their backstory and feel appropriately upset about their fate.

The formative Xinhai Revolution marks the start of China as a republic, and it's a complicated series of events that 1911 doesn't go out of its way to streamline. Some aspects, like the pricey-looking combat sequences involving trenches and explosions, are cinematic, and others are hilariously not at all, as when Sun goes to Europe to persuade the bankers there, done up as broad stereotypes of their respective countries and looking like characters out of a Monty Python sketch, not to lend money to the struggling Qing government. Sun travels to San Francisco, Malaysia and elsewhere raising support form the overseas Chinese population, while Huang leads a series of incomprehensible, nicely shot battles, some of which go well and others of which don't.

1911 isn't propaganda (an accusation lodged at 2009's state-funded The Founding of a Republic, a drama about the Communist ascendancy in which Chan and many other Chinese stars appeared) but more a relentless, serious, fiercely nationalistic bit of historical mythmaking. The revolutionaries are all noble, devoted and sacrificing, ready to die for their new country at the drop of a hat. Instead of starting off with a list of woes being inflicted upon the people pre-rebellion, as you'd expect from a film with this arc, 1911 kicks off with a woman heading to execution, about to become the first female to shed blood for the conflict, according to her voiceover: "I rejoice at my martyrdom." Someone shows her a picture of the children she'll be leaving motherless, but she doesn't show regret -- she believes her death will go toward helping all children by giving them a better country in which to grow up, a sentiment that's noble in theory but hard to take when laid out too baldly.

1911 is reportedly a passion project of Chan's, and it's filled with many of the trademarks of those downsides -- it's overlong, disjointed, a greatest hits of important moments with inadequate connective tissue, impossible to comprehend without prior detailed knowledge of everything it recounts. For those in search of the latest Chan film, it feels little like the work that's made him so famous, and more like an opportunity for him to play a famous war hero. While no one expects the man to continue to leap onto moving trucks and slide down skyscrapers the way he did when he was younger, to have him try to carry a film consisting of material this dry is too taxing for his limited dramatic skills. As if aware, he throws in one palliative segment of martial arts in which he fights off men coming to disrupt Sun's arrival by ship. It feels like a breath of fresh air, a glimpse of an actually enjoyable movie tossed in favor of dour history.


  • Smi says:

    1911 is very historical. Sun Yat-sen is both to Mainland China and to Taiwan what George Washington is to America. I have not seen this movie yet. From what I have have read so far online, it doesn't cover all the historical events, but what can one expect given a ~2hrs movie. Anyway, I think Jacky and those involved did a great job. ...regarding this article author's hint that Jacky did not have enough stunt and hand combat scene, I think that is a good thing. Normal day people, even those adept in combat, don't fight like a stunt man (doing trick fight and stunt). To be more true to reality, keeping the stunts down to a minimal is wise. .....I just cannot wait to go see this movie.

    • Ben says:

      It's romanticized historical revisionism as shameless and biased as John Wayne's, "The Green Berets".

      Read Roger Ebert's review on the latter and it will give you an idea of why films like these are nothing more than propaganda pieces that have the danger of distorting historical facts.

      HK movies used to have much more wide appeal in the 80s and 90s which is why some HK directors and stars had some limited success in Hollywood in the 90's.

      However, the films coming out of HK ever since the takeover from the Brits to China are shameless nationalism where Americans, British, and Japanese are villainized as imperialists while the Chinese are the most noble people on the planet. No wonder these films are failing to make it across the Pacific.

      • Ben says:

        Just substitute "The Green Berets" with "1911", and "John Wayne" with "Jackie Chan" and for the most part it will give you an idea of why these nationalistic movies coming out of China and HK have the danger of distorting historical facts and why HK movies need to grow up.

      • Jane Doe says:

        And Hollywood films do not have shameless nationalism where Chinese and Russians are villainized as evil commies while the Americans are the most noble people on the planet? Hollywood films do not distort historical facts? Sometimes, I think maybe Hollywood movies need to grow up as well, but when I say that I get "artistic licence" shoved into my face.

        Let's face it, when the US makes movies they can revamp history all they want and no one will complain (heck, the Chinese love those crappy flicks so much they will even go out of their way to download illegally), but when anyone else does it, suddenly it's evil, dangerous "propaganda".

        1911 is a popcorn flick made with a Chinese audience in mind, so a bit of Chinese heroism is to be expected, because that is what Chinese audiences like to see; and, yes, there are caricature US, British and Japanese villains, because that too makes for an easy watch – it's called entertainment. If those caricatures rub you the wrong way because you're American, British or Japanese, then maybe that says more about you as a person (like— you really need to lighten up man!) than it does the film.

        • Jane Doe says:

          Look,what I'm trying to say is; it's a movie, it's entertainment, and most historical movies are not going to be nuanced about their subject (the very few that do are the exception). You want historical nuance, then you're very much looking into the wrong direction – go read a history book instead.