REVIEW: DVD Release: Axis Of War: The First Of August

Film: Axis Of War: The First Of August
Release date: 10th May 2010
Certificate: 15
Running time: 95 mins
Director: Song Yeming
Starring: Liu Jin, Hou Youg, Lue Leong Wai Ray, Wu Waidong, Zhang Zaixin
Genre: War/Action/Drama
Studio: Metrodome
Format: DVD
Country: China

Axis Of War: The First Of August is the first of a loose trilogy of films chronicling the forming of the Chinese Republic, and depicts the disruption of the alliance between the KMT and the Communist Party, leading up to the Communist occupation of Nanchang on August 1st 1927. From the outside looking in, it proves to be entertaining not so much as a film in its own right but as a piece of State-sanctioned propaganda.

This feeling creeps in right from the start, during the credits. Apparently in China, there is no need to entice your audience with the names of your actors - producers, production directors, executive producers, no less than five screenwriters, cameramen, art designer, editors, sound designers, etc., are all prominently displayed before the actors and directors get a look-in.

The film proper starts with a pretty decent battle scene, reminiscent of the trench warfare of World War I. The Kuomintang (KMT, or Nationalist Party) and its Communist Party allies are launching an offensive against the remaining warlords of the Northern provinces. It’s a bloody and brutal battle, which eventually turns in favour of the KMT, with the timely cavalry charge by General He Long.

Waise Lee (Bullet in the Head), the only recognisable name in the cast, plays Wang Jingwei, the head of the KMT. Whilst his forces fight hand in hand on the battle-front, at home there is a growing rift between the two parties…

This is a very confusing film for the casual viewer. Anyone without a decent knowledge of the events in question is going to be left dazed by the plethora of real characters who will carry no resonance whatsoever. It’s quite difficult to discern who is fighting for whom, at least for the first half of the film. Things settle down a bit, though, when the film concentrates on the CPC’s attempt to entice Ye Long to the Communist party. It’s a shame that the plot is so cumbersome, because the film is handsomely shot, with some nice cinematography and high production values.

The story is decidedly very one-sided, showing the dastardly lengths the KMT go to oust the Communist Party (lots of public executions of “traitors”) without actually delving into what caused the rift between the two parties. Waise Lee’s character, in particular, becomes more of a comic-book villain as the film progresses. Meanwhile, the Communist Party (and Ye Long in particular) are shown to be humanists who argue endlessly about the cost of taking up arms and rising up against oppressors. Even when inexperienced officers take draconian actions against some starving peasants who try to steal back some rice, it ends up being a lesson of stoicism vs. humility (and results in one of the most bizarre marriage proposals ever).

As the film draws nearer to its climactic battle, we are treated to scene after scene of patriotic propaganda – stirring anthems playing over battalions of soldiers all at attention, wearing their red neckerchiefs. To be fair, though, the propaganda elements and overt patriotic imagery probably aren’t much worse than the sort of stuff that appears in the likes of Michael Bay’s Armageddon or Pearl Harbour.

The film makes good on its promise of a decent scrap at the end, as the army led by Ye Long attempts to take hold of Nanchang, their red ties distinguishing them from the opposition. The battle scenes are juxtaposed with those of the temporary HQ where the party leaders attempt to coordinate their attack. The battle itself contains moments of derring-do to get the heart pumping, and ends in a climactic moment full of pathos.

The film’s main problem, however, is the script, which spends way too much time on ponderous conversations between would-be protagonists.

A film which will likely lose a lot of viewers in the opening third of the film, or will at least have them reaching for Wikipedia to get an understanding of what is going on, but persevere and the film settles down and becomes much easier to follow. MOW

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