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by Jay Seaver

"Not even well-made propaganda."
2 stars

Coincidentally arriving in a few American cities the same weekend that "1917" opens wide, "Liberation" suffers from opposing faults. It's busy to the point of frenzy rather than meticulous, rushing through every cheap play for audience sympathy it can with bigger firefights and explosions coming at a rapid pace just in case that's not enough. It's lurid but made to please crowds, even though the filmmakers aren't that great at making the action effective. It's one of the tackier bits of recent myth-making to come from the Chinese movie industry, which is saying something.

Starting out in January 1949, days before the Tianjin campaign that would serve as a turning point in the Chinese Civil War, it initially introduces the audience to a team of Communist soldiers aiming to infiltrate the city to help get artillery sightings, because the revolutionaries aim to take the city with relatively little damage. Cai Xingfu (Zhou Yiwei) has other reasons to lead this mission - wife Xiuping (Yang Mi) is still in the city. Among the Nationalists, Director Qian Zhuoqun (Philip Keung Ho-man) is especially cruel, lording his power over entertainer Yan Mei (Elane Zhong Chuxi) and locking up quartermaster Yao Zhe (Wallace Chung Han-Liang) for a ferry accident, though he is using the aftermath to attempt to push that Nationalists into a harder line. Zhe attempts to escape with six-year-old daughter Junlan (Audrey Duo Ulan-Toya) only to run headlong into Cai's mission, and the two would be at odds even if it weren't likely that Cai's son Jifeng was on the sunken ferry.

There's a lot going on and the filmmakers spew it at the audience in rapid-fire manner to start, efficiently and earnestly talking about firing solutions that will not in fact be a major part of the film, finding the hackiest possible way to reveal Yan's hatred for Qian, and letting major parts of the story just hang there uncommented upon. It puts Yao Zhe directly at the center of the action but doesn't particularly do much to establish his interests and loyalties beyond his daughter, to the extent that it's easy to initially peg him as a spy rather than someone pushed up against the wall. Things start to shake out later on, but initially viewers are likely to have their attention on the wrong things, and when characters show up later so that there can be action in more places, it's hard to be sure whether they've been introduced but offscreen until needed or if they're new.

All this material being jumbled up and maybe edited into a mess can result in some strange moments in the performances, with Wallace Chung constantly making Yao Zhe seem more confused than need be (or maybe playing foolish and exploited is the only way Nationalist characters are allowed to be sympathetic). Zhou Yiwei competes hard in the scenery-chewing contest, playing his anger and regret to the balconies to the point where you've got to wonder why he'd be put in charge of anything, especially when there do seem to be much more charismatic level heads around. Philip Keung at least seems to be having a blast as Qian, playing an unrepentant villain, just walking around with contempt on his face constantly and making it clear just how little he thinks of anyone he talks to.

He's so enjoyably nasty that the film's big finale, in which he chases the rest of the characters through a gorgeous-looking department store in a tank, should either be a lot more fun or a lot more horrifying; it's a well-conceived action piece that would be much better of the two directors would let the audience get the lay of the land or linger on all these fancy material things being destroyed. That's at least kind of interesting to watch; most of these set pieces are mostly loud and cut just enough to pieces that one can see all the money spent on the sets and costumes but can't quite follow anything, even before artillery fire keeps coming out of nowhere to jumble things up more. Most frustrating is bit of Rube Goldberg hostage situation death-trap nonsense which should be thrilling but is instead so ineptly pieced together that it's all but impossible to guess which people trying which things would be dangerous and which might offer a little bit of hope.

The film then ends on a heroic image of the founding of the People's Republic of China, so ham-fisted in how it shows characters who have been through hell beatifically happy that it angers one for being not just shameless propaganda, but lazy propaganda. It's not unexpected, but still disappointing, a reminder that maybe you don't actually like big-screen action quite this much.

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originally posted: 01/13/20 16:00:58
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  09-Jan-2020 (MA)

Directed by
  Xiaoyang Chang
  Shaohong Li

Written by
  Meng Li
  Jianquan Shi

  Yiwei Zhou
  Wallace Chung
  Philip Keung
  Elane Zhong
  Mi Yang

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