A still photo of "Qian Xuesen" [Photo: douban]
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 including the Soviet Union withdrawing its advisors, eventually climaxes in the test of China's first nuclear missile in October 1966.
A tribute to the father of China's missile programme and the de facto initiator of its later space programme, Dr. Qian Xuesen pretty much follows the standard template of official mainland biopics, with chunks of history, plenty of datelines and a light dusting of the subject's personal life knitted into a heroic narrative. But with Huang Jianxin as producer and Zhang Jianya as director, it's several cuts above the traditional plod on both script and acting levels, as well as on the technical side.
D.p. Zhi Lei, who worked with Zhang on the VFX spectacular Red Snow (2002), as well as comedies Call for Love (2007) and Fit Lover (2008), brings a burnished sheen to the visuals, while Hong Kong's Derek Hui, who worked with Huang on Beginning of the Great Revival , as well as on Peter Chan's Wu Xia, brings a smooth feel to the editing, which avoids choppiness despite the episodic structure. But Huang and Zhang's contributions can be most felt in the un-starchy performances, the relatively unbombastic tone of the whole picture, and the mobile direction and use of good visual effects.
Again showing how official Mainland biopics have evolved in the modern age, the film is also cast with two youthful stars — romantic pin-up Chen Kun as the hero and Kitty Zhang (CJ7 (2008), White Deer Plain) as his wife.
Looking passably like the real Jiang Ying, Zhang tones down her usual lynx-eyed sensuousness and makes the wife role more than just a token part, while Chen, though shakey in his English dialogue and looking way too handsome for the part, goes acceptably through the motions as the scientist who responds to his homeland's calling after being treated shamefully by the US during its Red Scare period.
Other roles, such as Lin Yongjian 's general and WU Yue's down-to-earth military type, are well drawn, and performances by western actors (whose names unfortunately are not given) are way above average for this type of production, especially those playing sympathetic Caltech president Lee DuBridge and bullish US Navy Undersecretary Dan A. Kimball.
Where the recent Sky Fighters (2009) argued for China's right to control of its own skies, and The Space Dream for its place at the astro table, the message here is all about China having a nuclear missile capability and, through it, a say in world affairs — a message that won't be lost on viewers given current China-US military relations.
The movie is pitched on a less personal level than Space Dream, and is less involving emotionally, but it compensates with a portrait of an age (the '50s) when the country was broke from the Korean War and and had to rely on its own limited resources and inventive thinking.
The film features often bold integration of documentary footage showing the real Qian, notably on his deathbed and at his 2009 funeral. But the most surprising footage is reserved for the end titles, where the real Qian is shown at an (unidentified) official gathering alongside writers Lao She and Ba Jin, plus opera legend Mei Lanfang.