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Yuan Ming Yuan
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Directed by Jin Tiemu

A retelling of the construction, life, and eventual sacking by Franco-British forces of Beijing's old Summer Palace, Yuan Ming Yuan is the most ambitious Chinese documentary ever made. With a budget of ten million yuan– extravagant for a documentary even by Western standards – this film relies heavily on CGI reconstructions of the Qing dynasty summer retreat.

One of the most captivating sequences in the film starts with a shot of today's ruins. We then watch as a building rebuilds itself and the surrounding fountains and gardens come vividly to life. Other scenes re-enact history using live actors against a largely CGI background. Because of its reliance on CGI and reenactment, director Jin Tiemu prefers to call it a "nonfiction film" rather than a documentary.

But there is more of Ken Burns in this film than Zhang Yimou. For all its lavish visuals, Yuan Ming Yuan is a strangely static film. There are numerous Burnsian pans across paintings, maps, and photographs, but what really slows the film down is its reliance on "Voice of God" narration. Nobody speaks onscreen in any of the reenactments and though some narrative passages represent the voices of various characters, most of the images are accompanied by an unidentified male voice-over recounting events in a pristine Beijing accent. There are a few interesting visual embellishments like a scene of the emperor meeting one of his sons for the first time as the boy mercilessly hacks at rose blossoms with a small sword, but by and large the images rigorously follow the voice, depriving both of much of their revelatory potential.

Yuan Ming Yuan is a visual feast and a well-researched and worthy historical document, but a riveting film it ain't. 

(That's Beijing by Carl Thelin January 29, 2007)

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