China has engineered a propaganda epic for the MTV generation. The two-hour movie has the stirring music, monumental battles and rousing speeches of traditional communist fare. But it is slickly updated into a star-studded procession, with 172 cameos by China's top actors, network news anchors and comedians.
The Founding of a Republic is a centerpiece of the propaganda strategy ahead of the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on Oct. 1.
Martial arts star Jackie Chan is a mustachioed, Cantonese-speaking journalist, while his sparring partner Jet Li has just one line as a Nationalist navy officer.
Zhang Ziyi, the female star of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, is positively dowdy as a female politician in a badly fitting gray suit. Some of China's top filmmakers — directors Chen Kaige and Feng Xiaogang — also have roles in the film.
The stars gave their services for free, just to be part of China's birthday celebrations, and perhaps to curry political favor. According to the movie's Web site, it cost just over $4 million to make — less than one-third of Jackie Chan's paycheck for Rush Hour 2.
The main roles — Chairman Mao Zedong and Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek — go to less famous actors, who bear an uncanny resemblance. The film depicts the political machinations in the four years leading up to the founding of the People's Republic. The storyline focuses particularly on the formation of an advisory body called the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, which these days is known as a rubber stamp.
But there is some interesting ideological spin. One scene shows Chairman Mao trying and failing to buy cigarettes, because all the shop owners have fled.
"If there aren't any businessmen, I can't even buy cigarettes," Chairman Mao says, "let alone talk about market prosperity. We have to invite them back."
His underlings agree with him vehemently, pointing out that revolutionaries don't understand the economy, while one even says that economic mismanagement can be worse than battlefield disaster.
"We must work together with the capitalists and democracy activists," says his second-in-command, Zhou Enlai. "We cannot destroy them."
That cooperation did happen — but only until 1957. Then, the democracy activists and capitalists were effectively destroyed when they were persecuted during the Anti-Rightist campaign. Of course, the film doesn't mention this.
Zhu Dake, a professor at Tongji University's Center for Cultural Criticism in Shanghai, says this is just one example of the film's distorted logic.
"Its core is about democracy. This film is opposed to one-party dictatorship. But the real situation in China today is very far from democracy. This is a very important gap in the logic; it's almost sarcastic," Zhu says.
It is startling to watch scenes of Chinese crowds shouting "long live democracy!" And Zhu believes this could indicate that President Hu Jintao, or other influential figures, are pushing for more democracy inside the Communist Party.
Another scene shows Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek talking about corruption. "Fight it, and you lose the party," he says. "Don't fight it, and you lose the country."
Zhu says most Chinese watching the film will be aware that exactly the same is true today.
"Sixty years is one time cycle for Chinese people. Now, the Communist Party is actually standing at the same place where the Nationalists were in the film. So the Communist Party needs to fight corruption and ensure China's fate. That's the only way out," Zhu says.
At a Shanghai screening of The Founding of a Republic, the audience wasn't bothered by fuzzy logic. They also shrugged off recent accusations of hypocrisy surrounding some of the film stars taking part in this intensely patriotic movie, even though they've taken on other nationalities, such as Jet Li, who was born in China but now lives in Singapore.
Instead, the mood at the screening was one of pride in China's achievements.
"We've lived through this," says a sprightly 85-year-old who called himself Mr. Cai. "We came here to reminisce. This is the first time in 50 years I've been to this cinema. It's worth it."
Younger members of the audience were also enthusiastic. "I can only say I'm moved, and it's increased my patriotism," says Fang Zhen, 24. "It's good enough to be a gift for our 60th anniversary, especially the last shot of the national flag fluttering."
Preliminary ticket sales have been record-breaking, perhaps not surprising given the film's political importance and its symbolic timing.
But one thing is not clear: whether the subtext of this movie represents an act of self-criticism by China's Communist Party, or a remarkable act of blindness.