Ten years ago, the unimaginatively titled The Founding of the Party tried to tempt people to the cinema for a big screen recounting of the early life of Mao Zedong and his role in creating China’s Communist Party (see WiC115). The film struggled with early sales but went on to collect Rmb412 million ($64 million) at the box office, a relatively large sum at the time.
This year, which sees the Communist Party celebrating its centenary (see WiC547), the country’s filmmakers went a step further by releasing not one but two propaganda flicks for the special occasion.
Last week saw the debut of 1921 (the year the Party was formally inaugurated), while rival film The Pioneer also tells the story of the Party’s founding.
So how to tell the same story so many times and still keep it fresh? Producers of 1921 selected a much younger cast than previous efforts. Chow Yun-fat, 66, and Andy Lau, 59 – two of a number of A-listers in The Founding of A Party – were replaced by Huang Xuan, 36 and actress Ni Ni, 32. Rival effort The Pioneer also stars younger actors like Li Yifeng, 34, and actress Tong Liya, 37.
To avoid the two latest instalments plots’ directly competing against one another, the main narrative of 1921 follows the story of young revolutionaries from around the country converging on Shanghai for the first Congress of the new political organisation. The Pioneer chooses to focus on a rescue effort involving Li Dazhao, an intellectual who co-founded the Party but was captured and tortured by warlord Zhang Zuolin.
Box office results for the two films have initially headed in very different directions. Despite having a higher rating on review site Douban, The Pioneer collected just Rmb50 million in ticket sales during its debut weekend in cinemas. Cumulative sales for 1921 have been better, earning Rmb250 million.
In spite of its superior haul, 1921 suffers from the challenges of hosting a huge cast of Party luminaries. “Having so many characters is both a highlight and a shortcoming. With so many different people, it becomes hard to focus on the main story. That’s also a problem with a lot of historical epics,” one critic acknowledged. Audiences saw similarities between 1921 and the previous Party epic 10 years ago. “It turned out to be another star-driven blockbuster – as expected,” one cinemagoer told the South China Morning Post. “The film funnelled in so many big names, but few immersed themselves in their roles. I remained an outsider sitting in front of the silver screen, instead of being pulled into the history.”
Netizens were more complimentary about The Pioneer: “It just has a better screenplay and the story flows better,” one wrote. “The acting in The Pioneer is really strong. The film has strong sense of rhythm and the scenes are very real, which makes audiences feel like they have been transported in time,” another gushed.
So why the divergence in ticket sales? Some put it down to the star power of the cast in 1921. Just the involvement of pop icon Wang Junkai, who has a small role as a revolutionary who refuses to betray his colleagues, was enough to draw a large group of his fans to the cinema (Wang’s large and loyal fanbase has made him a brand ambassador for Coca-Cola and others; see WiC538). Additionally, state-owned companies organised screenings of 1921 for their staff, providing the film with supplemental income.
“The cast of 1921 includes everyone from the most seasoned actors to young high-traffic stars. Such a line-up – even if you don’t consider the substance – brings enormous exposure for the film. On the other hand, the cast of The Pioneer is just a lot less alluring,” one critic surmised.
In spite of its stuttering narrative 1921 did attract a loyal following of its own. “As I was watching, my eyes were filled with tears of emotion. Compared with every character in the film, I felt that my life was so minute and trivial. I kept thinking about what value I would have offered if I lived in that era – what would I have done?” one audience member asked. “1921 is a film every Chinese should watch. How lucky we are to grow up in 2021. There’s no oppression, no struggle, our lives have become easier and better.”
What is also clear about 1921 is the message it tries to convey of the continued spirit of the Communist Party as youthful and vibrant, albeit now in its hundredth year. The selection of a younger cast is part of that strategy and the protagonists are introduced in a way that makes it doubly obvious. The actor playing Mao appears alongside the caption “Mao Zedong, 27”, for instance, and other revolutionaries make their appearances in a similar way, including “Deng Xiaoping, 17”, who we see busy at work on a printing press.
“100 years, still youthful” is the film’s tagline, driving home the message further.
Next week sees the release of yet another propaganda movie, albeit of a more contemporary variety. This time a far more recent endeavour will be celebrated in Chinese Doctors, which tells the story of the frontline medical workers who battled against the pandemic in the bleak early months of the Covid-19 outbreak.
However, there are some cinemagoers who admit to feeling a little fatigued by all the patriotic fare. “I hope that in the next two months, there will be a few more exciting films. At the moment, the Chinese cinema market is really dull,” one film fan sighed.
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