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CINEMA They scaled the hardest heights

KEITH BENNETT recommends 1921, an outstanding film on those who struggled to bring the Chinese Communist Party into being and in doing so laid the foundations for the country’s current pre-eminence

1921 (15)
Directed by Huang Jianxin and Zheng Dasheng

THE 100th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party of China (CPC) has been the occasion for many impressive events globally throughout July, and 1921, which has had a limited general release in Britain and Ireland, is a feature film worthy of the centenary.

While its focus is that momentous year, it deploys flashbacks at the beginning reaching as far back as the 1850s, showing China’s degradation to a semi-colonial and semi-feudal ruined nation and then, at its conclusion, a potted but vivid historical reconstruction of subsequent years.

This culminates in Chairman Mao proclaiming the founding of the People’s Republic on October 1 1949, as well as Young Pioneers visiting the restored site of the first party congress 100 years later.

As those narratives unfold, there are special effects worthy of a Hollywood blockbuster while the documentary footage skilfully heightens the realism of the drama.

A similar historical technique is deployed to depict aspects of some of the key characters, including such pioneering Chinese communists as Li Dazhao, Chen Duxiu, Li Da and, of course, Mao Zedong.

The narrative of the party’s early years features key moments leading to the founding of the CCP, which includes the May Fourth Movement, where ideologies like Marxism and the Bolshevik Revolution were later influential in what became the CCP.

The movement’s Chen Duxiu and Li Dazhao  — co-founder of the CCP — were among the first leading Chinese intellectuals who publicly supported Leninism and world revolution.

Particularly moving in the film is the depiction of the tragic and heroic fates of some of the key early martyrs of Chinese communism, including Yang Kaihui, Mao’s first wife and great love.

This provides a raw and poignant contrast to the youthful idealism, frenetic activity and infectious optimism of many of the key characters as they throw themselves into the preparations for the founding of the party while simultaneously immersing themselves in the surging movement of the young but extremely militant Chinese working class, along with the youth and students.

Shanghai, in particular, where the party was founded, is accurately depicted as a playground for wealthy Chinese and, above all, foreign overlords. But it is a living hell for the masses of Chinese people.

While the leading characters are presented in a more all-round, nuanced and “human” way than was typical of an earlier period of Chinese revolutionary cinema, the film successfully combines action and romance with skilful expositions of key political questions.

Brief spoken proclamations from the Communist Manifesto highlight the young revolutionaries’ wholehearted embrace of the need for class struggle leading to the establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat and their rejection of the reformism of the Second International, while the question of whether communists should hold office in a progressive bourgeois government, such as that of Dr Sun Yat Sen, is touched on.

And, in one short but highly significant scene, Mao raises the importance of the peasant question, to the initial scepticism of his comrades.

It was, of course, his grasp of the peasant question, and of the role that the peasants could play in the revolution in a country such as China, that created the conditions for victory and secured his eternal place as one of the greatest and most original leaders and theoreticians of the global communist movement.

Also central to the political thrust of the film is the role played by the Communist International. Its two representatives, who attended the CPC’s founding congress, are rightly portrayed as heroic and selfless individuals, with some nail-biting scenes as they evade the secret police.

And, while the need to follow the path of the victorious October Revolution in Russia is consistently highlighted, there are also some pretty heavy hints of future tensions between the CPC and the Comintern, with the focus on the Chinese communists’ determination to forge an independent path as something intrinsic to their nation-building project.

The role of the Comintern representatives in liaising with the fledgling Japanese Communist Party in Shanghai also features, in a film whose panoramic sweep takes us beyond China.

The action moves to the Kremlin in Moscow, where we see Lenin addressing a congress of the Communist International and to Paris, where we witness the struggles of the Chinese workers and students to get organised under the banner of Marxism and to build support for China’s struggle among the French public.

And it is in Paris that the 17-year-old Deng Xiaoping — affectionately dubbed Doctor of the Mimeograph by his comrades for his skill and diligence in producing revolutionary literature under difficult conditions — makes an appearance.

This touching, exciting and profound film is both great entertainment and a great education. It needs to be widely viewed, in China and beyond.

It is obviously important for young Chinese people so that they might better know the struggles and sacrifices of their forebears that have made possible today’s increasingly strong and prosperous socialist China.

And for those in the non-socialist world, who may sometimes feel daunted by the enormity of attempting to transcend the outmoded system of capitalism, it’s a reminder that a better world is indeed possible.

Even a small number of people, with no resources to speak of, can really help to make it happen, so long as they have the spirit, in Marx’s words, to “storm heaven” or, as Mao put it in his poem Chingkangshan Revisited: “Nothing is hard in this world if you dare to scale the heights.”

This review first appeared in Friends of Socialist China,


This review first appeared in Friends of Socialist China,


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