72 Martyrs 英雄喋血
Period political drama
2011, colour, 1.85:1, 112 mins
Directed by Derek Chiu (趙祟基)
By Derek Elley
Sat, 03 December 2011, 21:05 PM (HKT)
Initially promising drama of a 1911 China uprising let down by a weaker second half. Asian events.
Huizhou, Guangdong province, southern China, October 1900. After failing to assassinate the governor-general by blowing up his mansion as part of the anti-Manchu Huizhou Uprising, revolutionary Shi Jianru is captured and executed. Guangzhou, Guangdong province, 1911: following other unsuccessful uprisings, Pan Dawei (Tse Kwan-ho), deputy head of the Guangzhou department of the Tongmenghui (Chinese Revolutionary Alliance), arrives by boat and smuggles weapons past customs officers. During a dinner party at the house of wealthy local trader Fang Hongzhi (Wang Jiancheng), head of the Guangxing business association, there is an assassination attempt on the Manchu Qing government's Marine Minister Li Zhun (Eric Tsang), which fails. Among the guests is Luo Zhonghuo (Zhao Bingrui), just arrived from Penang, Malaysia, who gets to know Fang's daughter, Huiru (Elanne Kwong), also a revolutionary. Afterwards she takes him to the house of painter Gao Jianfu (Liu Kai-chi), head of the Tongmenghui's Guangzhou department. Zhonghuo is carrying a letter from Tongmenghui leader Sun Yat-sen, but neither Jianfu nor Dawei are sure whether he is a spy. To convince them he is genuine, Huiru suggests he tries raising some money for the movement from her father, by first becoming friendly with his cultured longtime mistress Jiang Meixi (Irene Wan). Zhonghuo becomes Meixi's English tutor and helps Fang in getting a local gang off of the Guangxing's turf. As Chinese New Year arrives, Gao and Pan plan a mass suicide attack on the governor-general's residence - in what will become known as the Huanghuagang Uprising of 27 Apr 1911.
Before it starts losing dramatic momentum around the hour mark, Derek CHIU 趙祟基's 72 Martyrs 英雄喋血 (2011) looks like being the best of this autumn's trio of movies on turn-of-the-century revolutionaries, all made by Hong Kong directors in China and backed by Mainland money. It doesn't have the visual scale of Jackie CHAN 成龍's 1911 辛亥革命 (2011), but it does have a promising dramatic arc and interesting characters; and though it doesn't have the ambition of Herman YAU 邱禮濤's The Woman Knight of Mirror Lake 競雄女俠秋瑾 (2011) to re-define the Mainland biopic in Hong Kong genre terms, it does have a literate script and some fine performances to anchor it. As such, it falls somewhere between those two movies in overall quality.
With Knight sketching the lead-up to the events of 1911, and Martyrs giving a fuller version of 1911's initial section, the three movies dovetail into a series of different takes by southern Chinese film-makers on the southern Chinese revolutionary movement that turned the country from a monarchy to a republic. None reach down very far politically, though Martyrs, in its first half, best portrays the undercover nature of the movement, riven by suspicion and skullduggery. And in terms of Chiu's career, Martyrs basically forms a sequel to his Road to Dawn 夜・明 (2006) (aka Before the Sunrise), which dealt with the work of revolutionary leader Sun Yat-sen the previous year from his temporary base in Malaysia (also shown briefly at the start of 1911).
As a pure movie, Dawn was hampered by being shot entirely on location in Penang and having to show off the region, too much stiff dialogue, and Angelica LEE 李心潔 in a perky role that didn't really fit into a political drama. Martyrs is similarly let down by Elanne KWONG 江若琳 in an isn't-it-fun-to-be-a-revolutionary role, but is way superior in its production values, with smooth photograhy by Edmond FUNG 馮遠文, solid art direction by Terrence FOK 霍達華, and a much better script by the same writer, Wang Mei 王梅 (aka Meazi 梅梓). The major problem with Wang's screenplay is that, after a strong beginning and a middle section that detours to a young revolutionary's friendship with a businessman's kept woman, she lacks the writing technique to revive the atmosphere of the opening in the lead-up to the finale, especially as several major personalities of the uprising such as Huang Ying (Jackie Chan's role in 1911) and martyr Lin Juemin are hardly mentioned.
This weakness is particularly noticeable as the finale — the Huanghuagang Uprising, in which 70% of the 120 participants died, with only 72 bodies identified — actually takes place off-screen. This bold structural gamble could even have worked if there was enough personal drama going on to replace the expected climax; but in the event it just looks like the budget wouldn't stretch that far.
Chiu, a variable director who's done all types of movies from the artier (Mr. Sardine 沙甸魚殺人事件 (1994)) to engaging rom-coms (Frugal Game 慳錢家族 (2002)), directs unexcitingly but carefully. Performances, however, are generally strong, led by China's WANG Jiancheng 王建成 as ruthless business leader Fang Hongzhi and Hong Kong's TSE Kwan-ho 謝君豪 and LIU Kai-chi 廖啟智 as the revolutionary leaders. In a fascinating casting footnote, South Korean actress OH U-jeong 오우정 | 吴友静 (Enlightenment Film 계몽영화 (2009)) appears in a mute role as Fang's menacing personal bodyguard that cries out for more development.
The film is also known as 72 Heroes. An earlier version of the incident is The 72 Martyrs of Canton 碧血黃花 (1954), made in Mandarin in Hong Kong by nine directors to celebrate Taiwan president Chiang Kai-shek's second term.
ContactSales: China Film Promotion International, Beijing (email@example.com)
Theatrical release: China, 16 Sep 2011.
Presented by Pearl River Film Group (CN). Produced by Pearl River Movie Media (CN). Executive producer: Liu Hongbing. Producer: Zhao Jun.
Script: Wang Mei. Photography: Edmond Fung. Editing: Wang Mei, Wang Chao. Music: Su Junjie. Art direction: Terence Fok. Costume design: Bobo Ng. Sound: Lu Hong, Wei Chunyi. Visual effects: Henri Wong, Wong Chi-kit.
Cast: Tse Kwan-ho (Pan Dawei), Zhao Bingrui (Luo Zhonghuo), Elanne Kwong (Fang Huiru), Liu Kai-chi (Gao Jianfu), Irene Wan (Jiang Meixi), Wang Jiancheng (Fang Hongzhi, Huiru's father), Eric Tsang (Li Zhun), Alan Tam (Huang Ying, aka Huang Keqiang), Huang Liqing (Mrs. Pan), Oh U-jeong (Fang's female bodyguard), Wu Jiahui (Liu Si), Song Tao (Yu Peilun), Wang Kai (Lin Wen), Zhang Yang (Lin Juemin), Wu Jian (Hui), Sun Xiaojun (Qiang), Tao Yi (girl), Li Qilin (Qing army captain), Jiang Hong (Wu's mother).