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mao in the mall

mike walsh: the founding of a republic

Mike Walsh is a Senior Lecturer in the Screen and Media Dept at Flinders University.

The Founding of a Republic The Founding of a Republic

The “main melody” film (that is, the type of film whose function is to carry out the ideological work of the Communist government) is a part of Chinese cinema which Westerners tend to know only from textbooks. These films are made primarily for domestic consumption and our film festivals typically spurn them in favour of trendy dissident filmmakers who make underground, miserabilist films about the spiritual emptiness and banal crassness of life in present-day China.

Finding myself in Beijing in the lead-up to the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic, I set out to see what I had been missing. In the week before National Day, the main melody film to end all main melody films had been released: Han Senping’s The Founding of a Republic, a two-and-a-half hour epic boasting over 170 cameos by stars including Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Andy Lau, Donnie Yen, Leon Lai and Zhao Wei as well as the participation of directors like Chen Kaige and John Woo.

To set the film in its Beijing exhibition context may give some idea of the massive contradictions which constitute civil society in China these days. I saw it at the Star City multiplex in the basement of the ritzy Oriental Mall in Beijing’s major shopping street, Wangfujing Dajie. As the mall borders on the route of the parade for National Day—where nuclear missiles would soon rumble past Louis Vuitton stores—the streets were crawling with skinny young soldiers with machine guns and plainclothes men making no attempt to hide nasty looking batons.

Once inside the mall, however, another world prevailed. The East Asian mall is perhaps found in its most perfect form in Hong Kong, but it is also familiar to the trendy and upwardly mobile urban denizens of cities from Seoul to Singapore. The brand names are all there: Versace, Louis Vuitton, Lane Crawford. In contrast to the nationalism which was being peddled (and policed) on the street, the promise here is access to cosmopolitan style, evidenced by the fact that Western faces outnumber Chinese ones in store advertising by a factor of about ten to one. Severely slutty and stylishly emaciated Western models loom up one after another, until all of a sudden among them is the Great Helmsman appearing in a multiplex lobby display in the bowels of this new temple of consumption.

The Star City multiplex has six screens and that day it was running a total of 19 sessions, 10 of which were screenings of The Founding of a Republic. The international trade press constantly carps that the Chinese government maintains the high percentage (55-60%) of the domestic box office for local films not only by a quota on foreign films but also by blacking out Hollywood films at prime times of the year such as the National Day holidays. (For those who care, the only Hollywood movie screening was State of Play, a movie which shows American politics in a less than favourable light while also promoting the free, investigative role of the press. Its geopolitical references in China might depend on whether you like to see your glass of civil liberties as half full or half empty.)

The Founding of a Republic was released on 1,700 screens and relentlessly promoted in the media. Consequently it has gone on to become the biggest box office hit in Chinese cinema, grossing over $US60 million. While some might see this as a manipulation of the market, it has the same kind of pre-sold blockbuster status of a Harry Potter or Spiderman movie. The incorporation of a plethora of stars shows that China is successfully developing its own regional star system, and that stars and directors know that they now have a viable economic interest in playing ball with the government. So, Jet has three lines at a dinner party, Jackie sits in a chair during one scene and Andy Lau turns up for a couple of scenes at the end. Of course, their presence also gives the film a set of connotations other than that of simply another main melody film. Just like a cameo by Tom Cruise in a Sundance film, the star implicitly stakes a claim for any film as a part of the entertainment cinema.

In the spirit of dialectical materialism, let us attend to the economic transaction entered into by the spectator when buying a ticket to the film. On a Sunday afternoon I paid the top price of 70 yuan (about $A12) for what was described as VIP entry to the session. While cheap by my standards, I would note that what appeared to be legitimate copies of new Hollywood films were selling in the DVD store of the Fab Endless Culture Plaza for about 27 yuan, and a Big Mac with Coke and fries was 22 yuan. My ticket equated to about 2.5% of an average monthly salary in China. In Australian equivalent terms, that would put the price of the ticket at around $120.

The multiplexing of China has been one of the great recent stories of attempts to incorporate China into the patterns of international cinema. Prior to the Cultural Revolution, China had one of the largest cinema audiences in the world, albeit one based on forms of exhibition outside the patterns to which we are now accustomed. Film exhibition was not something that happened in purpose-built exhibition venues, but part of the wider program of activities in halls, workplaces and parks. With the retreat of the state in these areas, came the complaint from cinema companies that China was heavily underscreened. As Westerners are contemplating yet again the death of the cinema, in China the cinema audience which was destroyed is being rebuilt along new lines in which mall-based multiplexes have led the way in repositioning the cinema as a youthful, consumerist entertainment.

Positioning The Founding of a Republic for a youthful audience is the main problem that the filmmakers strive to solve. The film opens for no good reason with Mao’s plane animated in all its CGI glory and the camera buzzing hyperactively around its propellers. Every time there is an opportunity for incorporating an aeroplane ride into the narrative we are regaled with these CGI effects. A shot of a plane dropping a bomb (which looks to be straight out of Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor, 2001) is the most visible selling point for the film in all its advertising. Here we have to read the danger that the film is trying to avert: the fear that Communism is just for old farts. CGI speaks of youth, the freshness of contemporary pop culture, and the embrace of the future. That it does so in such an awkward fashion in this film is almost endearing. Look on the street and you’ll see that the embrace of cosmopolitan style is no easy thing for China.

Before the film itself, there was the usual assortment of trailers (five—all for Chinese films) and ads to be got through (18! Including five for cars and three for television sets). That a film about the triumph of a Communist revolution should be attended by such an array of capitalist consumption seems completely in keeping with the wider thrust of a society in which Communism has now been emptied of any sense of class analysis.

The Founding of a Republic echoes this evacuation of Marxism from Communism. Mao Zedong has nary a line concerning the dictatorship of the proletariat. The film pictures him as a coalition builder, always ready to reach out to other factions in the Chinese political landscape. He is upset at one point that he can’t buy a pack of smokes as this indicates that conditions are too unstable to allow shopkeepers to do business.

He is also relentlessly humanised. One scene has Mao and Chou En-lai interrupt a discussion of tactics in order to give piggy-back rides to a couple of moppets. When the film ends, I stroll west for 10 minutes to where the stuffed carcass of the Great Helmsman still lies in state, smack in the middle of the contested territory of Tiananmen Square. I pause to nostalgically imagine the mass of Baudrillardian essayists who would once have posed questions about what is real and what is simulation in all of this. The more contemporary line of analysis might be to see all this as a branding exercise with Mao as the face of China’s brand, not too different from Jennifer Hawkins and Myers. Sooner or later these days, everything seems to end up back at the mall.

The Founding of a Republic, directors Han Sanping, Huang Jianxin, Chen Kaige, Peter Chan, writers Wang Xingdong, Chen Baoguang, producer China Film Group, 2009

Mike Walsh is a Senior Lecturer in the Screen and Media Dept at Flinders University.

RealTime issue #94 Dec-Jan 2009 pg. 21

© Mike Walsh; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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