Film Review: Historical Drama ‘1921’ Is More a Grand Parade Than a Blockbuster6 min readReading Time: 5 minutes
1921 charts the tumultuous lead up to the Chinese Community Party’s 1st National Congress and its subsequent founding.
Director: Huang Jianxin, Zheng Dasheng
Cast: Huang Xuan, Ni Ni, Wang Renjun, Liu Haoran, Chen Kun, Li Chen, Zhang Song Wen
Runtime: 137 minutes
1921 was released in China on 1 July 2021 to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). It seems inevitable that crowds will turn away and dismiss the historical drama as Chinese state propaganda. Yet it is exactly because of the film’s unmistakable intention — and how it achieves its goals — that makes 1921 a must-see.
The film looks to recontextualise the story of the founding of the CCP for China’s younger generation, roping in a crop of up-and-coming stars to portray founding leaders. For the rest of the world, 1921 can be seen as China’s reaffirmation of its foreign policies. Anyone with an interest in geopolitics will have an absolute blast even without a prior understanding of the film’s context.
You could almost hear the furious typing of video essay scripts while sitting down with this film. 1921 is so refined in its purpose, so relentless in its weaponisation of the film medium, that it almost feels like an arthouse work. The craftsmanship here beckons to be examined the same way one could appreciate Soviet or German propaganda. 1921 is not an entertaining film — at least not in a conventional sense. Yet, it is so exceptionally fascinating, so unlike any other in modern times, that the film has to be experienced.
1921 charts the lead-up to the 1st National Congress of the CCP in Shanghai, mostly centring on prominent founding party members Li Da (Huang Xuan), Li Dazhao (Li Chen), and Mao Zedong (Wang Renjun). Amidst a fractured China rife with poverty, their efforts to realise a better tomorrow for the country are stifled by the secret police and Shanghai’s French Concession police.
To expand on this synopsis while remaining brief will be a tall order. Even before the film formally begins, there is an elongated credit sequence with at least ten studios featured. 1921 never stops feeling like a grand parade. Its scope is mainly emphasised through sheer numbers with interspersed close-ups to ham fist emotions of triumph or grief.
The film has absolutely no remorse with the number of characters it introduces. A large portion is given the same treatment as the studios behind the film, with a name and a blink-it-or-miss-it description of their place in history. The other portion — mostly foreign characters — are thrown into side plots that feel like they are from another film altogether, filled with spy work, a car chase (featuring 1920s automobiles drifting), and action sequences. 1921 moves at a breakneck speed that assumes prior knowledge of the film’s events (as dramatised as they are from reality).
It is such an exhaustive experience trying to catch up that the only respite is from familiarity found in straightforward emotions. There are little to no outright rousing speeches and moments, with Chen Kun’s mesmerising performance as Chen Duxiu, the CCP’s first General Secretary, being the only exception — but these are sparse highlights.
Just about every other emotion otherwise serves the party. There are tears and cute moments shared between Li Da and wife Wang Huiwu (Ni Ni) but these are shed and bled for the party and country more so than for themselves. Even the birth of their first child is presented to coincide with party milestones. Despite this audacious approach to the film’s key characters, it surprisingly does not feel devious thanks to good-looking actors turning up their charms.
The efforts to reach a younger crowd are clear with its cast, its dazzling vision of 1920s Shanghai, and the splendid fashion of the time period. Even party meetings, whenever they don’t feel like lighthearted gatherings for the younger members, feel like active rebellions that requires evading the law.
There is definitely recontextualising at work here, most notably with a specific conversation between founders that looks to reconcile the capitalism of modern China with its humble beginnings. It relegitimises China’s success. The film’s larger context of widespread poverty is mostly shunned visually, only mentioned and weaved within dialogues of what is to be solved.
What is most deftly felt from the film is the reaffirmation of China’s attitude towards the rest of the world. In Mandarin, China translates to ‘Middle Kingdom’, and throughout its millennia-old history, its foreign policy has orientated towards placing itself as the centre of the world.
The film’s setting of 1920s Shanghai, where the cosmopolitan city was divided amongst the world’s superpowers, allows itself to be a microcosm of this thinking. There is the exchange of ideas and cultures but there is the assertion that most of these have to be refashioned for the country. More on the nose is the contrast in tones between the film’s plots, where the Chinese remain undivided while foreigners bicker amongst themselves each looking to claim their stake in the country’s affairs.
These are not astute observations. 1921 never obscure its intentions to seem manipulative nor does it strongarm its messages — no need, when the film moves like they are on the right side of history.
It’s the pride and confidence with how the film manoeuvres that will undoubtedly awe audiences, domestic or otherwise. All this could not be achieved without excellent camera work, emphasising scope over the individual, a bedazzling colour palette, and the sheer commitment to bring out the opulence of the city. And from all the exhaustion found in the narrative and evocative visuals, the emotion that prevails by the film’s end is one of a pyrrhic victory — the next generation has to continue The Fight but victory will be certain.
Propaganda films take on several forms and there seems to be this contemporary thinking that such messages have to be subliminal or subtle to survive the rigour of the Internet age. 1921 brazenly challenges this notion and still emerges as one of the most enthralling propaganda pieces of recent times — not for what it says but how it talks.
It’s far from an entertaining blockbuster, especially when it’s seemingly more interested in namechecking rather than telling a cohesive or engaging story involving its cast of thousands. Yet, 1921 is so peculiar, with so much to admire filmmaking and storytelling-wise that the film should not be dismissed for its intentions alone; I believe we can be a mature enough audience to accept and appreciate that while distancing ourselves from its messages.
1921 is now in theatres islandwide.