The Founding Of A Republic (Jian Guo Da Ye) is a unique film on the Chinese cinema stage. Produced to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the foundation of the People’s Republic, the film can be considered either a summary of a crucial period in the history of contemporary China, or a gigantic media operation which saw the entire Chinese star system flock to be a part of the production. A profoundly patriotic film which, with its original and intelligent formula, managed to attract a young audience to a propaganda film for the first time. With its 420 million RMB (U$61 million) of takings at the box-office, it beat the previous uncontested record holder, Titanic, and offered a new interpretation of the concept of the “national image”. It revolves around the history - with a small “h” - of the formation of contemporary China in the years between 1945 and 1949. The conflict between the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the Kuomintang (KMT) is in its final phase; political events, battles, negotiation and discussions ensue in an increasingly unrelenting crescendo, right up to the historic moment when Mao Zedong proclaims, from the Tiananmen rostrum, the founding of the People's Republic:
1945: Mao and Chiang Kai-shek meet in Chongqing for peace talks, both making reference to the spiritual and political inheritance of Sun Yatsen, the founder of the Republic of China (ROC). The difference between the pomposity of the KMT officials and the spontaneity of the CCP leaders immediately stands out. On 10 October, the so-called Double 10th Agreement is signed with the approval of the United States of America.
1946: The Nationalist government moves to Nanking and, immediately afterwards, the KMT reneges on the peace treaty, leading to the civil war breaking out again. The repression of left-wing intellectuals begins.
1947: The KMT bombs the Yan’an area occupied by the CCP, which is forced to flee to Hebei. In the meantime in Shanghai, the KMT closes the headquarters of the China Democratic League (CDL), which, under Zhang Lan’s leadership, decided to lend its backing to the CCP. The CDL moves to Hong Kong, where the dissident members of the KMT are also taking refuge. From July, the CCP changes strategy and decides to launch an attack on the zones occupied by the KMT.
1948: The KMT convenes a unilateral National People’s Congress in Nanking, which elects Chiang Kai-shek (CKS) as president and Li Zongren - his rival within the KMT - as vice-president of the Republic. In the meantime, the CDL and the Revolutionary Committee of the KMT are even more openly showing their support for the CCP, despite fears of the country heading towards a dictatorship. CKS is increasingly isolated within the KMT. His son, Chiang Ching-kuo, decides to go to Shanghai to stabilise the black market situation, created by corrupt government officials. In Shanghai, he meets Du Yuesheng, a local gangland boss. He learns from him that a major slice of the black market is in the hands of the Kung family, related to CKS. The latter realises that the party is riddled with corruption, but his hands are tied: to punish the corrupt officials is paramount to losing the party’s backing; not punishing them means losing the support of the people and, therefore, the country. His wife, Song Meiling, travels to Washington to ask the USA for help. but president Truman refuses, as he wants the civil war to end. In the meantime, Mao decides that the Chinese People Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) will elect a new central government, once Beiping (Beijing) is conquered.
1949: Following the CCP’s decisive military victory in the Huaihai campaign, with enormous losses of troops and artillery for the KMT, the CCP conquers the southern and central parts of the country. CKS - by now completely isolated within the KMT - is forced to resign his presidency of the ROC, while his rival Li Zongren pointlessly tries to negotiate with the CCP for the partition of the country, north and south of the Yangtze river’s banks. CKS plans his escape to Taiwan, while Li Zongren attempts to get the backing of Song Qingling, the wife of the late Sun Yat-sen and a very respected figure among communists. But both she and Zhang Lan of the CDL refuse to mediate for the KMT. The CCP’s Central Committee moves to Peking and invites KMT and CDL dissidents to join with them in forming a new central government. Peace talks fail in April and the CCP launches its campaign to overpower the southern parts of the country, occupying the ROC’s government headquarters in Nanking. The ROC government moves to Canton. In the month of May, Shanghai is liberated; Song Qingling is invited to move to Peking to be a member of the new government. The CCPCC convenes and decides on the name of the new republic, its flag and its national anthem. Mao is elected president of the new government, Beiping is renamed Beijing and elected capital.
On 1 October, from the Tiananmen Square rostrum, Mao proclaims the foundation of the People’s Republic of China.
Despite the partial use of archive footage from vintage documentaries and the complexity of the storyline - which could discourage those untrained in the finer details of contemporary Chinese history - what stops the film becoming a boring history lesson is the humanistic multi-faceted way that the protagonists are represented in this phase of Chinese history. The lack of an off-screen voice narrating events helps too. The mark of Huang Jianxin, the director who has gone from making noir comedies and films on ordinary people to directing propaganda films par excellence, is strongly felt in the portrait of Mao, with all his weaknesses, and of the cynical Chiang Kai-shek, tormented by doubts.
The implicit conciliatory message that the Chinese government launches to Taiwan with this film is not to be underestimated; the plans for unification with the island, long pursued by the Chinese government, can only be helped by avoiding indiscriminate vilification of the Kuomintang. Zhang Guoli’s interpretation of the KMT president is superb, one of the best characterisations in the film, along with Chen Kun’s take on Chiang Ching-kuo, the son of CKS, who has an obsequious but intense relationship with his father. The cameos by famous directors and actors are so brief that they leave a fleeting impression, apart from Feng Xiaogang’s charismatic appearance as the most important gangland boss in Chinese history. The public competes to recognise the almost two hundred stars who took part in the film, each appearance accompanied by exclamations of surprise and enthusiasm: Jet Li in the role of a marine officer, Jackie Chan a journalist, Andy Lau a KMT official, Chen Kaige a general, Zhang Ziyi a young militant communist, Jiang Wen a cynical CKS official, etc. Characters such as Mao and other party leaders are played by actors specialised in impersonating them, an art that they have now perfected. It should be noted that, in contrast to his renowned predisposition to speak with a very strong regional accent from his birthplace, the province of Hunan, in the film Mao speaks in correct Mandarin Chinese, almost to underline his “belonging” to the whole country. As a propaganda film, The Founding of a Republic is the only film made in China that can be compared to masterpieces of the genre such as Battleship Potemkin by Sergei Eisenstein or Triumph Of The Will by Leni Riefenstahl. The production costs were relatively contained (30 million RMB), because all the stars appeared for free (this is partly why their appearances were so fleeting, condensed into a day’s work, on average), while the marketing and distribution of the film were of a colossal magnitude, with 1,400 screens showing it during the week of 1 October, accompanied by an unprecedented advertising campaign, including the continuous projection of the trailer in cinemas during the period preceding its release.