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24-hour party people: Film to tell story of communism

A propaganda movie about China's 1949 revolution was a hit last year. The prequel looks at the birth of the party

The last time that Tang Wei appeared in a movie blockbuster, the Chinese censor took the dimmest of views.

Plucked from obscurity by Taiwanese director Ang Lee for Lust, Caution, Ms Tang starred as an undercover wartime spy and sufficiently gymnastic lover for seven minutes of sex scenes to end up on the cutting room floor. She was blacklisted by the country's all-powerful film bureau. Her starring role in a lucrative advertising campaign for face cream was quietly dropped.

Now, after the purge, in true Chinese Communist fashion, comes the gradual rehabilitation. Tang will appear in a Chinese epic to mark the 90th anniversary of the founding of the party. From the lover of a collaborator in Japanese-occupied Shanghai in Lust, Caution, Ms Tang will be transformed into an early girlfriend of Mao Zedong, the first leader of the People's Republic of China. The turnaround is complete.

After the huge success in 2009 of Founding of a Republic, an epic movie tribute to the 1949 revolution, China's top propaganda filmmakers have started shooting The Founding of a Party for the anniversary on 1 July next year.

The film is part of the Communist Party's efforts to present a modern image of itself, stressing its relevance in a changing China that is Marxist-Leninist in name only. After all, the main sponsor of the film is the luxury US carmaker Cadillac, which is pushing aggressively into the increasingly lucrative Chinese market.

To that end, the leading roles will be taken by young actors and singers, who have been chosen to appeal to a younger audience and put fresh faces on the icons of Chinese history. As with The Founding of a Republic, the picture will feature some stars working for nothing other than the glory of the Party and China.

"We don't want people to come to see it because of the anniversary, we just want to do a good movie, telling about an important period of Chinese history," said Huang Jianxin, who is co-directing the movie with Han Sanping, the powerful head of China Film, the state film company which controls all aspects of the Chinese business. "We did a lot of research and analysis of this period and of the characters' lives, before we started shooting. And we want to attract more young audiences to watch it since it is a story of young people," said Mr Huang.

The Founding of a Republic was the most successful Chinese film of last year, taking in nearly £40 million in box office receipts. It was the most successful Chinese film of all time until this year's earthquake epic Aftershock.

The filmmakers say the aim of the new movie is to give a fresh reading of some of the crucial events of that turbulent period in Chinese history, with a youthful team of scriptwriters examining the events that led to the foundation of the party.

The movie covers the period when the revered president Sun Yat-sen established a central government in 1912 after the Qing dynasty collapsed, as well as the efforts by the autocratic general and politician Yuan Shikai to re-establish the imperial system, with himself as emperor, in 1916.

It looks at the reaction of China to the October 1917 Revolution in Russia, which inspired young people in China to practice Communism, as well as those studying in Paris and other cities abroad. It also features the May Fourth Movement, an anti-imperialist movement that grew out of student demonstrations in Beijing on May 4, 1919.

China makes dozens of propaganda films every year, most of them failing to register beyond its borders, or even beyond the province in which they are made. They are watched by party faithful or as part of a works outing, but rarely inspire enthusiasm among the general population.

Chinese television is full of tedious historic films that heavily feature uniformed party cadres sitting around a table trying to outdo each other with declamations of patriotism and party loyalty, to the applause of their colleagues.

However, The Founding of a Republic transformed the Chinese propaganda movie. It was well acted, cleverly scripted and generally entertaining, except for a few tedious scenes to explain various committees and plenums and some syrupy sentimental moments.

While the latest film is designed to bolster the image of the Communist Party, it is not expected to give much of an insight into how the party runs the country now – at a time when some critics say one-party rule faces its most difficult period with China's 1.3 billion people experiencing growing economic clout but little political influence.

China has just become the world's second-largest economy, overtaking Japan. The party is growing in power and influence every day – it now has 78 million members – but little is known about what goes on inside Zhongnanhai, its central enclave.

With leadership change expected in the next two years, fresh interest in how the country is run has been fuelled by a new book, The Party, by journalist Richard McGregor, and China-watchers scour official media for indications of how the changes in leadership will pan out. All of the key decisions in the world's most populous nation are made by a small and highly secretive group. Decisions filter down from a nine-man Standing Committee to the Politburo, to a central committee, and downwards to the rank and file.

The Party of Mao ruled out capitalism as a way forward for China, and persecuted "capitalist roaders" during the Cultural Revolution, while his successors Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin reformed the Party to permit "Socialism with Chinese characteristics", the state capitalism that holds sway in China today.

Of more concern to the millions expected to watch the movie, is its star power. In a sign of the shift from the traditional movie-making powerhouse of Hong Kong, some of its top actors are playing parts, showing their loyalty to the Motherland. Andy Lau, the Hong Kong star of the hugely popular Infernal Affairs series of crime thrillers, plays the warlord and revolutionary Cai E. There are reports that Hong Kong director John Woo will also play a part.

They will be joined by the top Chinese actor Liu Ye, who looks uncannily like the young Mao Zedong, the heartthrob's hopeful expression reflecting the optimism that the young Mao felt in the early days of the Party. Zhang Guoli will play Mao's nemesis, the Kuomintang (KMT) leader Chiang Kai-shek, who lost the Civil War and fled to Taiwan.

There is still a question mark over which stars will be paid for taking part, and which will merely be performing their patriotic duty. For the previous film many stars worked for free. "But we think in this film, we will pay actors and actresses," said Shi Dongming, vice-president of China Film Group. "I can't reveal the budget but it will not pass 100 million yuan (£9.5 million), that is for sure."

Online, there is a lot of curiosity about the movie, with The Founding of a Republic prompting a reassessment of dreary propaganda movies. There is particular interest about how the film can engagingly dramatise the endless committee meetings that characterised the party's early days.

"A lot of people are waiting to see the movie because they are fans of the young actors and are curious to know how those important historical personages can be portrayed by these young faces," wrote one anonymous online commentator. Another said it would be amusing to see an "historical body wearing fashionable clothes". Fashionable or not, the censor will just be relieved that they are wearing any.

Ideology at the movies

The Founding of a Party is the latest in a long line of films designed to bolster a political system.

Triumph of the Will

A notorious propaganda film of the 1930s by Lenin Riefenstahl, casting Nazi rallies in a heroic light using new artistic methods. The film was followed by Olympia, based on the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. "They are fascinating pieces of film-making, innovative and beautifully shot but foul propaganda," said Geoff Andrew, head of film programme at the British Film Institute in London.

I Married a Communist

The 1949 film was a classic case of Cold War propaganda made by British director Robert Stevenson. It was later renamed The Woman on Pier 13 because of audience reaction. A story of communist infiltration and dirty tricks at a San Francisco shipping company, British critic Tom Milne railed against its "cartoon characters" and "fatuous script".

Mrs Miniver

The 1942 film was shot to showcase the triumph of English stoicism in the face of Nazi bombing. Designed to keep Second World War spirits high. Like the others, beautifully shot.