FilmSlashTV: Jackie Chan’s history lesson

Oct. 7, 2011 | 0 Comments

Jackie Chan as 'Eight-Finger' Huang Xing in '1911.' (Photo courtesy Media Asia)


A century ago this month, on Oct. 10, a neighborhood military coup in Wuhan, China, was the sparkplug that lit off the Xinhai Revolution, which toppled the Qing Dynasty and pushed China into the modern world. Chinese nationalists and revolutionaries were concerned that the Dowager Empress, rattled by the defeat of the Boxer Rebellion, was lying doggo for colonialist western powers who were enriching themselves on China’s resources. The country was fractured, and it took an overseas Chinese emigre like Sun Yat Sen to see the big picture.


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The revolution was short but bloody. The Qing boy emperor Pu Yi abdicated with four months — and China continued to tear itself apart in the warlord period through World War II. But the seeds were sown for a united China, and the nation still celebrates Oct. 10 as “Ten-Ten Day,” pretty much the equivalent of the American 4th of July.

A big-budget film spectacular about the revolution was probably inevitable, since China is the only nation left that still makes big-budget film spectaculars with casts of thousands. “1911 Revolution” stars Jackie Chan in his 100th movie role, and that numerical synergy — always a plus in China — makes this an event movie there.

Chan plays Huang Xing, the “eight-fingered general” who was the first commander-in-chief of the Republic of China, while Winston Chao plays Sun Yat Sen, who became the new republic’s provisional president.

This is a big, big movie, and plays like a bombastic — and endless — history lesson. There are dozens and dozens of historical personages represented, often just for one brief scene. They are identified with film titles, and students of revolutionary Chinese history can have fun checking them off. Look, there’s Li Yuanhong! And over there, Feng Guozhang! Alas, if you’re not familiar with the era, and many in America are not, it’s all a reverent, nationalistic blur. Imagine the musical “1776” playing in a village theater in Mongolia, and you get the idea.

The oddest character is dwarfish Homer Lea, a frankly odd American with military aspirations who promoted himself to general status and volunteered to command Sun Yat Sen’s Chinese troops. Lea was a real person and a genuine oddity — and predicted a Japanese invasion of Hawaii four decade before it happened — but “1911” doesn’t seem to know what to do with him. In fact, with few exceptions, all the haole roles are performed by people who are clearly not actors, and it shows.

“1911” plays it all methodically and straight instead of trying to engage the audience with a character arc or story plot. The film tries mightily to engage us with what are essentially filmmaking parlor tricks, like forced empathy, cutting it on the beat like a pop-music video, tremendous and stupifying action scenes and overly arty and sometime bizarre camera work. Chan even briefly engages in some inevitable martial arts, which feels desperate and unnecessary in this context.

History is never as neat as drama, is it?
Burl Burlingame is a features reporter at the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. Email him at and follow him on Twitter.

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