— Political films can be a tough sell in many countries, to say the least. But director Huang Jianxin is confident that he's sitting on a blockbuster with "Beginning of the Great Revival," a historical epic detailing the founding of China's Communist Party.
Of course, he's got some advantages that would make almost any other filmmaker green with envy. For starters, his cast includes more than 170 of his country's most famous actors, including Chow Yun-fat, John Woo and Andy Lau, who waived their salaries to take part.
Second, many theaters have quietly cleared out or pushed back popular competing titles like "Kung Fu Panda 2" and "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides" to make way for his movie.
And then there's the fact that many companies are compelling their employees to see the film, local government websites are urging people to attend as a patriotic responsibility, and some municipalities are footing the bill for citizen screenings.
"We're all pretty patriotic and the anniversary of the party is approaching, so it's our duty to see this film," said Li Pingping, 18, a student at Peking University who organized a group of friends to see the movie the day after it opened in China last week. "I'm definitely going to join the party."
In its first five days in theaters in China, "Revival" accounted for 50% of all tickets purchased and raked in nearly $18 million, according to EntGroup, a Beijing-based entertainment research and consulting company. Huang, who directed the film along with Han Sanping, thinks the movie will make as much as $92 million at the box office in China — which would make it one of the highest grossing Chinese-language titles ever. It was produced by the state-owned China Film Group for $10.8 million.
But what kind of business, if any, the movie can do overseas is much less clear. "Revival," which opens in nine U.S. cities on Friday, details the period between 1911 — when the last emperor of China left the throne, ending 2,000 years of dynastic rule — and July 1, 1921, when the Communist Party was founded.
"Revival's" release abroad comes as China is trying to make increasingly sophisticated films and is being more aggressive in attempting to export its own view of the world. But a bit ironically, the Communist Party's intense involvement with "Revival" as it marks its 90th anniversary conjures memories of heavy state control and grand propaganda pieces.
"Unlike Hollywood, where profits and the bottom line are important, politics trumps everything in China," said Stanley Rosen, a Chinese film expert and professor at USC. "It's an attempt to be a commercial film, but ultimately it's a political statement."
The film is the second in a series. The first, "The Founding of a Republic" released in 2009, detailed the Chinese civil war and establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949. That film used a similar strategy of star power (the movie poster was a field of more than 50 portraits of the actors). In the end, it broke box office records and made $64.8 million.
Concerned that young people are increasingly attracted to Western systems of government with strong rule of law, the Communist Party is particularly eager to get teenagers and university students to see the new film. Though they may be lured in by the all-star cast and have a desire to express their patriotism, some say they are nonetheless unlikely to join the party because of its restrictive policies.
"I saw the movie because the producers invested a lot, there are lots of famous stars and I love my country, I'm a patriot," said Lan Xinyu, a 17-year-old high school student. "I don't think I'll join the [Communist] Party though, I want to study abroad and that will hurt my chances of joining."
Jiang Xiaoyu, a Beijing author and film critic, is dismissive of the film. "All these movie stars were used to update the image of the party and attract more young people," he said. "It's not at all to help people understand history; this is a very prejudiced government view of history."
Intense political calculations were made at every step in the production of "Revival." Tang Wei, who had been banned from appearing in Chinese films after her racy scenes in Ang Lee's "Lust, Caution," was set to play an early girlfriend of Mao Tse-tung. But descendants of the great helmsman, namely Maj. Gen. Mao Xinyu, reportedly intervened to have her cut from the film.
Earlier versions of the story also had Mao playing a more prominent role; at one point, the entire story was framed in the context of flashbacks. But ultimately it was decided that the cult of personality should not be revived; instead, the film presents a unified party, with Mao just one piece of a greater effort.
Despite these changes, the film walks a fine line between promoting the party and showcasing political uprisings — something the party is particularly concerned about in the wake of recent uprisings against Middle Eastern autocrats. The film depicts mass protests, students storming government offices and the actual founding of the Communist Party — which at the time was an illegal organization.
But ultimately, the government feels secure in its position, especially after quickly suppressing large-scale uprisings by ethnic Mongolians in May and migrant workers protesting mistreatment by security forces last week.
"The government was much more incompetent [in 1911]; there were warlords and no strong unified leadership and this allowed more political space," said Rosen, the USC professor. "Today the party presents the image: 'If you join us we will take care of you, but if you're against us we will crush you.'"
Local newspapers have run articles touting how many people saw the movie in their city and scores of Chinese have posted photos online displaying the large amount of tickets they purchased.
"Websites, newspapers, television stations; everything is promoting the anniversary of the party, and now the government has set up a monopoly with this film," Jiang said. "Only China and North Korea do this; I don't think there's anywhere else."