Details: 98 mins, China, People's Republic of,
Synopsis: China, 1947. On a visit to Shanghai, Qian Xuesen (Chen Kun), who has been working in the US for the past 12 years as a research professor at Califoria Institute of Technology, as well as an advisor to the US Air Force on its jet propulsion programme, proposes to and marries his childhood sweetheart, opera singer Jiang Ying (Kitty Zhang). The following year, their son Qian Yonggang is born in Boston, and they subsequently settle down in Pasadena, with Qian becoming director of Caltech's Jet Propulsion Center. Soon afterwards, however, under the Red Scare, Qian is accused of being a Communist spy, has his security clearance revoked, and is arrested and imprisoned. In 1950 he is found not guilty, but he has already decided to leave the US and return to China. However, the US military is unwilling to let him go because of his knowledge. In early 1951 he is put under house arrest, and is only allowed to leave the US in 1955, as a swap for 11 American POWs captured by China during the Korean War. In China he is put in charge of the country's missile programme which, after several setbacks, eventually climaxes in the test of China's first nuclear missile in October 1966.
Chinese rocket man gets stylish, patriotic biopic.
The wider theme of the film is that in a great country, a great man can achieve great things
PYONGYANG FILM FESTIVAL: Over the past couple of years, Chinese producer/director Huang Jianxin has capitalised on significant political anniversaries to make big budget, star-studded, blockbuster films (2009's The Founding of the Republic and 2011's Beginning of the Great Revival) designed to appeal to Chinese nationalism and the Chinese box office. Now as producer, Huang has come up with Qian Xuesen. It's the true story of an individual, rather than an organisation, but it pushes some of the same patriotic buttons in a very stylish manner, with luxurious visuals and a sophisticated approach.
Dr. Qian Xuesen (a dignified performance by Chen Kun of Flying Swords at Dragon Gate) was a Chinese mathematician and scientist who after securing a scholarship at Boston's MIT in the 1930s, then went on to become a key component of the American rocket program. Though Americans sighed with relief as fascism was defeated, the ideology-driven U.S. government/military were disturbed by the rise of Communism. Unfortunately for Dr. Qian, this anxiety, complete with good old fashioned racism, manifested as a block on his security clearances. At first the Americans threatened deportation, but then – realising that Qian held most of the secrets to U.S. rockets in his mind – wouldn't allow him to leave.
This political dilemma takes up a sizeable part of the film's drama, but the script always keeps the human drama behind the genius in sight. At one stage, Qian's motivation is demonstrated to be a kind of yearning for his true home, despite how well (or not) he is treated in the United States. When the U.S. military are more gentle in their attempts to keep Qian on their side, an American colleague asks Qian what he could possibly find to do in backward, elephantine China. Qian enigmatically replies that he can do anything he wants. "I might grow apples".
Qian did no such thing of course. In fact, he became the architect of China's own aeronautic ventures and was venerated by the Chinese government until his death at age 97 in 2009.
The wider theme of the film is that in a great country, a great man can achieve great things. This Sino-patriotic thought will challenge some Westerners, but add the subtle implication that the once internationally inactive Chinese military is now ready to act as a global superpower, some people may find this sometimes hawkish biopic quite distressing.
The rise of China's military and economic might dramatised here is echoed in the rise and rise of Chinese cinema. Producing over 450 features a year, Chinese film now covers the whole spectrum from festival indies to mass audience blockbusters. The films are increasingly more sophisticated and Qian Xuesen is one of the sleekest yet.
As producer, Huang recruited experienced director Zhang Jianya, whose smooth style easily accommodates the multitude of detail that often makes biopics busy and confusing affairs. Zhang's fluid, well-paced direction (a scene in which Qian proposes to his opera singing fiancé in Shanghai is transformed in a heartbeat to their arrival in New York City by boat) is complemented by high quality production design that recreates a golden, glowing California, Shanghai in its glory days and the economically challenged Mao-ist China. The script by Tao Chun and Chen Huaiguo has a hagiographic air, but it plays fair too. The film acknowledges the opportunities for educational and scientific advancement that the U.S. offered Qian. The irony is that internet rumour has it that this film has been suppressed internationally by Chinese bureaucrats because the movie was thought to reveal too many state secrets. It's a pity, because this is an entertaining and elegant biopic that deserves to be widely seen.
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