An angelic chorus of young boys set the scene at a big Tencent press conference held last week to announce new production strategies and a huge slate of upcoming content.
“The blood which fills our chest has boiled over, we must struggle for the truth! Arise, slaves, arise, we shall be the masters of the world!” they warbled, singing the version of “The Internationale,” the Socialist anthem, translated into Chinese from Russian in the 1920s by a poet friend of Mao Zedong.
Though the song was also taken up in 1989 by the pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square, it was here deployed as a segue into a half-hour presentation on one of the tech giant’s biggest upcoming film projects: “1921,” a blockbuster about the founding of the Chinese Communist Party intended as a tribute on the 100th anniversary of the occasion.
It’s no surprise that despite all the uncertainties of film scheduling these days due to coronavirus-related production slowdowns and shifting global release dates, the film has already fixed a July 1, 2021 release date to debut the same day as that founding.
The film will be jointly produced by Tencent Pictures and Shanghai Film Group, and directed by Fifth Generation helmer Huang Jianxin, known for co-directing with Han Sanping, the influential ex-China Film Group chairman, the two exemplars of China’s nationalistic “main melody” genre: propaganda flicks “The Founding of a Republic” (2009) and “The Founding of an Army” (2011).
“1921” is just one of at least 21 such “main melody” projects that Tencent’s content arms Tencent Pictures, China Literature and New Classics Media are currently working on, which account for a huge portion of the 56 titles unveiled at the presser in Shanghai on Monday. Seven others focus on the “power of youth,” 11 on “eastern stories,” and nine of “foreign collaborations.”
Generally speaking, “realist themes” that examine social issues will be the focus of future project development, said Tencent group VP and Tencent Pictures CEO Cheng Wu (aka Edward Cheng), noting: “Such works are close to lived experience, and so resonate emotionally more easily with audiences. Plus, as the industry’s ability continuously improves, it’s becoming increasingly possible to shoot high quality realistic works.”
Other works in the patriotic vein includes the TV series such as “Renshijian,” whose name roughly translates to “In the World of the People”), about how the lives of common Chinese people have improved over the past 50 years; “Chinese Peacekeeping Force,” about Chinese UN peacekeepers in Serbia; “Going Rural,” about the charms of rural life; and another celebrating the 40th anniversary of the founding of China’s special economic zones.
Development for “1921” started three and a half years ago, said producer Ren Ming. The team struggled to film amidst the coronavirus pandemic, which put a wrench in plans to shoot abroad and bring in foreign actors.
But the biggest challenge was a direct request from the head of the Shanghai municipal propaganda bureau, who asked them to gather 100 celebrities to appear in the 100th anniversary movie.
“Our first reaction was that this was an impossible task,” she said, even though over a decade ago, Huang and Han had rustled up 100 stars to try to make a spectacular out of “The Founding of a Party.” “There have been big changes since to our cultural and market environment. Talented actors nowadays have more options and keep very busy.”
However, the political brownie points and subsequent career boost that come from appearing in such tributes to the Communist Party — and the likely political stain of turning down such roles or never playing ball — continues to create a strong pull even for top stars.
“What surprised and really touched me was that pretty much every actor we called extremely readily accepted our invitation, and actively took great pains to clear their schedules to make it happen,” said Ren. “They all said the same thing to me: ‘I’m coming because this is to celebrate the Party’s 100th anniversary. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity’.”
“1921” features bankable young celebrities Huang Xuan (“Blind Massage,” “Youth”), Ni Ni (“The Flowers of War”), Liu Haoran (“My People, My Country,” “Detective Chinatown 3”), and TFBoy idol Wang Junkai. These are hoped to specifically appeal to Chinese youth.
“We hope to fit with the film-going preferences of young people today,” explained actor Zhang Chao, while fresh face Hu Xianxu explained that the team tried hard to mine the “relaxed, humorous and clever sides of those young people who founded the Party.”
The rhetoric of the young stars focused on inculcating modern youth with a sense of patriotic responsibility.
“It feels like nowadays, when you talk about a sense of mission or of conviction, it’s taken as a joke. But after shooting this film, I feel it’s not a joke at all,” said actor Zhang Yunlong, stating that he hoped the film would help viewers to “really understand these two terms’ importance and meaning.”
Actor Yuan Wenkang said his role playing a historic intellectual who felt a patriotic duty towards nation-building taught him that “a big and strong nation especially needs intellectuals to help our culture propagate outward.”
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