LIBERATION (2019) review

143259.52732712_1000X1000Liberation was directed by Li Shaohong and Chang Xiaoyang – the former in charge of the drama and the latter handling the spectacle – to commemorate the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949. Like most recent Chinese propaganda films, it is packed with action – seemingly gone are the days of stately, talky epics like The Founding of a Republic or Beginning of the Great Revival – yet like most recent historical Mainland propaganda, it was met with general indifference from Chinese audiences, even after its being pulled at the last minute from the opening night of the Pingyao Film Festival drummed up a bit of media drama about it (‘technical issues’ were cited, though our money is the hypothesis that it didn’t placate censors well enough).

It is set in January 2019, as the Communist army prepares to take the city of Tianjin, which is in the hands of the Nationalists. Cai Xingfu (Zhou Yiwei) is a Communist soldier tasked with infiltrating to city to take artillery bearings for the upcoming attack. Also hoping to exfiltrate his wife Xiuping (Yang Mi in a small cameo), and locates his son Jiefan, who has gone missing, he crosses paths with Nationalist quartermaster Yao Zhe (Wallace Chung), who’s trying to escape the city with his daughter after being made a scapegoat by his ruthless superior officer, Qian (Philip Keung).

Right from the beginning, Liberation rarely pauses for breath, and is narratively muddled to the point that it takes a while to discern who is who, and what the stakes truly are. Indeed, brushing up on the history of the Chinese Civil War is a requisite before watching, as the film makes little effort to bring the audience up to speed – perfectly understandable for Chinese spectators familiar with these events, but a detriment to the film’s foreign exposure. Yet the real problem is not the potential a lack of prior historical knowledge, but rather some inept editing: geography is muddled (especially in the countless scenes of urban warfare), and the very quick cutting often jumbles faces and actions beyond sufficient comprehension.

Past the one hour mark, events are streamlined into a more compelling narrative, but then terminal ridiculousness takes over. After the release of Guan Hu’s The Eight Hundred was delayed indefinitely for failing to portray the Nationalist army in a sufficiently negative light, it seems the filmmakers here made sure to be on the safe side of Chinese censorship, by having Philip Keung be a James Bond-level villain. He controls the life of a woman (a typically dead-eyed Elane Zhong) whose parents he already murdered, he rigs a little girl with grenades, he kills people with a Saw-level contraption that includes an artillery piece, cables and a giant fan, then near the end (mild spoilers coming, to avoid them, skip to next paragraph), he’s the last enemy standing an operates a tank all by himself, chasing the heroes through a department store… And, of course, he’s unkillable, getting back on his feet even after having been riddled with bullets.

Still, entertaining ridiculousness is a more palatable proposition than confusing boredom, and there’s a spectacular sense of tragedy in the final reel, a desperate bombast anchored in solid performances by Zhou Yiwei and Wallace Chung playing contrasted, well-written characters: the former valiant and humane but tempestuously angry, the latter an effective portrayal of courage and cowardice co-existing. And child actress Audrey Duo, after her superb turn in Vortex, impresses yet again. However, the film ends on a repellent coda: the civil war is over, millions of brothers have killed one another, but a military parade under the effigy of Mao Zedong makes it all go away, as the masses cheer in divine rapture. It’s shameless historical masturbation, a sorry sight.

Long Story Short: A muddled piece of propaganda with a few moments of entertaining ridiculousness. **

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  1. Sorry but I have to ask, are Chinese/Hong Kong films getting worse or are you becoming more cynical? All of your latest reviews are 2 stars or less… :-o :-P

    • Oh it’s just a recent streak in my choice of films to review ^^ (not that 2019 has been a particular good year for Chinese films anyway).


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