Tian An Men. 2009. Directed by Ye Daying. Written by Wang Bing. Produced by Han Sanping. Cinematography by Yang Tao. Edited by Cheng Long. Music by Xu Xiangrong. Production design by Quan Rongzhe. Visual effects supervised by Feng Liwei. Sound by Gu Changning.
Cast: Pan Yueming, Liu Xiaoxin, Tian Lihe, Xin Peng, Guo Keyu, Masanobu Otsuka.
(Note: this review has also been cross-posted on Twitch.)
Aliens, ninjas, mutant girls, soft porn, ass-kicking martial arts, unclassifiable weirdness … the New York Asian Film Festival truly has something for everyone, and these elements are perennials of this festival that is now in its ninth year. Such creatures and film genres, in fact, should by now be expected sights at the NYAFF. However, one of the true oddities of this year’s selections is Ye Daying’s Tian An Men, a slightly modernized slice of straight-up PRC propaganda created for last year’s 60th anniversary of the 1949 founding of the People’s Republic of China. Tian An Men is very much a throwback to the Chinese state productions of the 1950s and 1960s which glorified China with heroic episodes from the country’s history. The most famous cinematic product of last year’s celebration/nostalgia trip in China was Huang Jianxin and Han Sanping’s The Founding of a Republic, a star-studded super-production that detailed the history leading up to the formation of Communist China. The cast was a veritable who’s-who of just about every significant star of mainland China and Hong Kong. Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Zhang Ziyi, Andy Lau, and Zhao Wei are but a few of the superstars who appeared in this film, mostly glimpsed in the briefest of blink-and-you-missed-them cameos. Alas, despite its blinding star-wattage, The Founding of a Republic was a tedious exercise in mind-numbing exposition, so obsessed with trivial detail and blindly reverential that it was practically unwatchable. Still, the film did extremely well, breaking box-office records, probably more because of the patriotism of its audience rather than any real enthusiasm about its quality.
Tian An Men is easily far superior to The Founding of a Republic, if only because it dramatizes one specific episode rather than being a vast but shallow panoramic historical portrait. The film concerns a group of People’s Liberation Army soldiers tasked with getting Tiananmen Square in proper shape for Chairman Mao Zedong to give his speech at the founding ceremony of the People’s Republic of China on Oct. 1, 1949. Tian An Men delves into the rather fascinating minutiae of the problems the PLA faced in accomplishing their mission in the scant month in which they had to do it. The most dramatic episodes concern the acquisition of red dye for banners, and the quest to find proper sized lanterns to adorn the stage where Mao will speak. This scenario, on paper, threatens to be unbearably boring, but Tian An Men avoids this potential pitfall due to its detailed specificity, handsome production design (with CGI post-production enhancement), solid if unspectacular performances, and its utterly straight-faced sincerity. Tiananmen Square, of course, is associated in most people’s minds today with a far more tragic period of Chinese history, but the film that bears its name mostly succeeds in making this reality not an insurmountable impediment to appreciating this film.
Tian An Men screens on July 8, 1:45pm at the Walter Reade Theater. Click here to purchase tickets.
Watch the Tian An Men trailer here.