Meant to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Xinhai Revolution and the genesis of the Republic of China, '1911' is a historical drama with admirable production values but little to offer in terms of summoning up a sense of patriotic achievement. To be fair, eliciting such emotional reactions is no easy task, but the film, which sees star Jackie Chan take co-directing credit, seems too preoccupied with delivering a history lesson than providing an entertaining movie. The story is more intent on name-dropping, showing major battles and displaying on-screen texts that summarize other unseen events. Meanwhile, what's meant as a sweeping war epic feels exhaustive, congested, and terribly rushed in an effort to be all-inclusive.
Like Chan, the movie's other director, Zhang Li also pulls double duty as cinematographer, giving '1911' a wondrous beauty and elegance. Between the two, the film carries a classy, lustrous appeal which can be quite mesmerizing at times. Combined with the stage design and costumes, there's no denying the filmmakers' passion in making this, and it's marvelous to look at. There's a great deal of emotion and soft-heartedness put into the battle sequences and in a few of the more romantic ones as well. Relying mostly on slow-motion clichés for dramatic effect, however, many of these same scenes almost feel comically forced and hollow, better at boring the viewer than generating an inkling of pathos.
Taken further, such overtly romanticized moments are countered with dialogue that spits out information and names faster than bullets. The audience is made to really work at keeping up as Huang Xing (Chan) and Sun Yat-sen (Winston Chao) early on argue about returning to China and start the revolution. Yet, it's never made entirely clear why one of them can't and the other should. Joan Chen (Josie of 'Twin Peaks') plays the empress and the scenes with her royal court are fascinated, but we're not allowed to spend much time with them. Yuan Shikai (Sun Chun) is also brought in midway into the narrative, but again, his role is never clearly understood, except for those familiar with the country's history. Hint: As the second president, his schemes and greed did more damage than good.
Reportedly, the original cut of '1911' comes in at around 125 minutes. The version under discussion here clocks in at 99 minutes, missing nearly a half hour of footage. And it shows. In spite of its great looks and design, the film is a bit of a mess, narratively speaking. Or at least, it tends to come off that way due to some seriously horrendous editing — cuts which are terribly noticeable and often distracting. Not only are some characters vaguely introduced to the storyline, others come and go at the oddest times or go missing altogether. Li Bingbing's character, which we assume is Huang's wife, is most guilty of this as she disappears for long stretches and then never seen from again after a while.
For a film with so much going for it in the visual department, the dramatic war epic ultimately feels artificial and pedestrian. There is a genuine desire for telling for this particular period in China's history with lots of grandeur and sentiment, but filmmakers unfortunately fail at delivering this and instead give us a rather academic look at how the overthrow of the Qing Dynasty came to be. However, the odds of '1911' ever being recommended in college courses are not very likely and it will most likely sooner be forgotten.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Well Go USA Entertainment brings '1911' to Blu-ray as a special two-disc Collector's Edition. The first is a Region Free, BD25 disc with a couple of special features while the second is a Region Free, DVD-5 disc with more supplements. They sit comfortably on opposing panels inside a blue eco-vortex case with a simple, gray cardboard slipcover. At startup, viewers can skip through a series of trailers before greeted by a main menu screen with full-motion clips.
'1911' brings the revolution to Blu-ray with an exceptional 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode (2.35:1) that shows just how much work and effort was put into the production design.
The picture is practically immaculate, with extraordinary detail in nearly every frame and shot. From the clothing and furniture to the architecture of buildings and the battlefields, the smallest object retains sharp clarity with distinct lines which expose any wear and tear. Several times throughout, we could clearly make out individual grains on wooden surfaces and the threading on various fabrics. Facial complexions appear natural with lifelike textures, revealing the most trivial blemishes on actors. Contrast is right on the money with clean, crisp whites while black levels are inky rich and profound, providing the image lots of depth and incredible visibility into the distance. The color palette is slightly muted, which we can safely assume is deliberate, but primaries remain full-bodied and accurate.
The overall presentation could easily be considered as demo-worthy, but the reason it just misses the mark of perfection is for appearing much too sterilized. Meaning, the video lacks a cinematic appeal and simply feels like a high-quality television production. It's exceptional-looking, but is ultimately boring and forgettable.
On a side note, the subtitles accompanying the narrative are contained within the image proper. As result, this makes the movie safe for viewing on Constant Image Height projection screens.
For the audio, the disc features two DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks: one spoken in the original Mandarin dialect and the second, an English dubbed version. Either one is in excellent standing order, minus one minor caveat shared between both. They carry very noticeable ADR work, more so in the English track, but even in the original, vocals come off strangely detached and weirdly disconnected from the actors. It could be a matter of preference, but personally, it was enough of a distraction to warrant a mention.
As for the rest of the lossless mix, it exhibits brilliant clarity in the midrange with terrific differentiation of individual sounds during battle scene. Imaging generally feels wide and spacious with plenty of off-screen effects, though the majority of the design's focus is in the center with the dialogue. Everything seems well-balanced and consistent, but there's little overall activity and movement to deliver an engaging soundtrack. Bass is fairly deep and quite powerful at times, but nothing highly responsive or impressive, which is a shame given the various sequences of combat. Rears offer some discrete atmospherics for extending the soundfield, yet they're never truly convincing, making it a very good high-rez track but not all that satisfying for a war drama.
This Blu-ray Collector's Edition of '1911' sees the same set of supplements as its day-and-date DVD counterpart.
In commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Xinhai Revolution, '1911' is a dramatized historical film which fails to please. Admirable production design and stylized photography aims for the overthrow of the Qing Dynasty into a larger-than-life sweeping war epic, romanticizing several key events along with a few quieter moments. In the end, the film, which was co-directed by its star Jackie Chan, makes for a great-looking drama but leaves much to be desired. Dubbed the Collector's Edition, this Blu-ray package is quite good, arriving with an excellent audio and video presentation that's matched by a decent assortment of supplements. Altogether, fans should be happy with their purchase, but others will want to rent it first.