China takes no chances on starry propaganda movie

June 10, 2011 - 1:00 AM
China Propaganda Movie

Hong Kong actor Chow Yun-fat, left, accompanied by his wife, waves at fans during the movie premiere for

BEIJING (AP) — China's Communist Party expects its new propaganda film will be a blockbuster. After all, it has left little to chance. The cast is loaded with stars. Cinemas are banned from showing new Hollywood movies. And offices and schools have been encouraged to snap up tickets.

But critics are skeptical about whether liberties were taken in depicting certain historical events. And questions remain as to why one female star won't appear.

The film is known by the stilted English title "Beginning of the Great Revival" and is timed to celebrate the Communist Party's 90th anniversary. It traces a time well-known to most Chinese: the fall of the last imperial dynasty in 1911 until the founding of the party in 1921.

The movie opens next Wednesday and will show on most of the country's 6,000 screens. It is expected to draw about 300 million people over its run.

"We're expecting a great turnout, especially with it being summer," said Gao Jun, deputy general manager of Chinese theater operator New Film Association, in an interview with The Associated Press.

The movie features many of the Chinese film industry's biggest names — including Chow Yun-fat, Fan Bingbing and John Woo, who this week attended a red-carpet celebration of the movie. Woo, better known as a director of action movies, has a cameo.

The "Great Revival" shows the heft the authoritarian government wields even as China boasts a fast-growing commercial movie business as well as scores of television stations and entertainment websites.

"I think they tried to add a few things to make the big-ticket movies more attractive. One is increased drama and the others are new techniques and all-star casts," said Jiang Xiaoyu, a Beijing based movie director and critic, in an interview with APTN.

"But these are just superficial and I believe the new generation of more rational audience members would like to see the real historical truth."

The makers of the "Great Revival" are following the successful formula used for an earlier propaganda epic "The Founding of a Republic."

That 2009 movie marked the 60th anniversary of the formation of the People's Republic of China. It made 415 million yuan ($61 million) at the box office as young audiences weary of traditional propaganda movies flocked to get a glimpse of the stars.

The movie featured action stars Jackie Chan and Jet Li; Hong Kong comedian Stephen Chow of "Kung Fu Hustle" fame; and "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" star Zhang Ziyi.

To ensure success next week, as was the case in 2009, screenings of new Hollywood releases have been put on hold to reduce competition.

"Transformers: Dark of the Moon" will not be released until about a month after its U.S. opening. "Kung Fu Panda 2" — which is already in theaters — gets to stay, though it's unclear on how many screens.

After the Hollywood blockbuster "Avatar" became the highest-grossing film in China's history two years ago, local theaters were ordered to remove the two-dimensional version in an effort to reduce competition for China's homegrown films.

The "Great Revival" is likely to be seen by twice as many people as its 2009 predecessor, said Gao, the theater operator. He said that China now has about 2,000 more movie screens than it did two years ago.

One star who won't appear in the movie is Tang Wei, who was left out of the final cut.

Tang was slated to play the first love of communist China's founding father, Mao Zedong. But there are rumors she is still suffering a backlash after she was reportedly blacklisted for playing a traitor in the 2007 World War II-era spy thriller "Lust, Caution."

Gao said Tang was cut because historians questioned the accuracy of her character, not because of her role in "Lust, Caution." Some local media reports have suggested she was cut due to time constraints of the movie.

Both the "Great Revival" and its propaganda predecessor were commissioned by the main film regulator and made by the powerful state-owned China Film Group, which is involved in most major productions on the mainland and controls the import of foreign films.

The group's chairman, Han Sanping, along with Huang Jianxin, directed both movies and personally asked some of the celebrities to participate.

Injecting star power and big-budget production values have been seen as a clever way for party propagandists to reach Chinese in their 20s and 30s who grew up in the relative prosperity of economic reform and are often cynical about propaganda.

The success of such propaganda blockbusters has been helped by politically savvy theater operators who flood their screens with showings and by state-owned companies that buy tickets for their employees. Some students and members of the Army have also been given free tickets.

Besides the new film, the Communist Party is marking the 90th anniversary in other dramatic ways. It's launching a musical campaign that will have students and party members singing "red songs" praising the party at public events.

Local television stations will also broadcast shows featuring red songs and classic movies that celebrate the party and tell the story of Mao and his colleagues' struggle and sacrifice during turbulent times, according to the China Daily newspaper.