THE FOUNDING OF AN ARMY (2017) review

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After Han Sanping and Huang Jianxin’s The Founding of an Army and The Founding of a Party, what we like to call “the PRCCU” (People’s Republic of China cinematic universe) gets a third installment with Andrew Lau’s The Founding of an Army, which is backed by no less than forty-six credited producers, and more importantly, by the Chinese state. And so in solemn commemoration of the founding of the People’s Liberation Army, ninety years ago, Chinese audiences have been treated to yet another round of episodic, star-studded, title card-ridden, speech-happy propaganda, again with Liu Ye as the charismatic, statuesque, handsome, saintly, selfless, farseeing, and most of all, deeply, deeply humanistic Mao Zedong (note that our use of irony here is about as heavy-handed as the film’s approach to history).

It is obviously pointless to dwell on the historical dimension of a film which, as all propaganda does, polishes facts into a narrative of salvation, with Wallace Huo’s Chiang Kai-shek portrayed as a brooding, short-sighted villain. And so we’ll judge the film simply from a cinematographic point of view. It is certainly lavish (apart from the obligatory handful of cringe-worthy CGI moments), with Andrew Lau in full command of the considerable infrastructural and pyrotechnical means put at his disposal. And it is less excruciatingly boring than the previous two films in the trilogy, thanks to two impressive battle scenes. For the rest, it remains a tiresome collection of impossibly solemn vignettes where everyone has an impassioned speech to make, or manly tears to shed.

Title cards abound, whether to provide perfunctory background, or to announce the name and age of the characters on screen; these “name and age” title cards can be a source of hilarity, as they candidly reveal that many of the actors cast here are much older than the people they’re playing. This is a film that shows us salty, weathered character actor Wang Jingchun along with a title that reads “He Long, aged 31”, while middle-aged martial arts actor Wu Yue is “Zhang Guotao, aged 29”. There’s quite a few more, and potential for a drinking game.

Still, most of the cast is resolutely young and sexy; while the former two films tried to pack as many acting legends into their casts as possible, this time teen idols are the focus. Lu Han, Zhang Yixing, Li Yifeng and a few other “fresh meats” are fulfilling their civic duty, though as often in the Summer of 2017, it is Oho Ou who – what an alliteration – makes the strongest impression with his smouldering charisma. Elsewhere, Zhu Yawen is remarkably well cast as Zhou Enlai, Zhang Hanyu has the film’s best scene (right out of Andrew Lau’s peak, Infernal Affairs) as Du Yuesheng, while two of the Soong Sisters appear: Song Jia as Sun Yat-sen’s widow Ching Ling (again fine casting, though it is just for one short scene) and Crystal Zhang, not exactly a dead ringer as Chiang Kai-shek’s wife Mei Ling. A post-credits scene teases the enticing prospect of a The Founding of an even Stronger Army.

Long Story Short: A lavish work of propaganda: impossibly star-studded, hilariously solemn, boringly episodic. Two superb battle scenes might wake you from your blasphemous slumber. *1/2

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