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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Now, here's an artistic enterprise that involves a wealth of stars. In China, a movie opened today called "Founding of the Republic." The epic celebrates the birth, 60 years ago, of the People's Republic of China. NPR's Louisa Lim went to a preview in Shanghai to find out what it tells us about today's China.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Founding of a Republic")

LOUISA LIM: This is a propaganda epic for the MTV generation. The stirring music, monumental battles and rousing speeches are all there, but mixed in are cameos by no less than 172 famous Chinese faces. The stars flit on and off the screen, some for just seconds.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Founding of a Republic")

Mr. JACKIE CHAN (Actor): (As character) (Speaking foreign language).

LIM: Martial arts star Jackie Chan is a mustachioed journalist…

(Soundbite of movie, "The Founding of a Republic")

Ms. ZHANG ZIYI (Actress): (As character) (Speaking foreign language).

LIM: While Zhang Ziyi, the female star of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," is positively dowdy in a badly fitting gray suit. These stars gave their services for free, just to be part of China's birthday celebrations and perhaps to curry political favor. The movie cost just over $4 million to make, less than a third of Jackie Chan's paycheck for "Rush Hour 2."

The main roles — Chairman Mao and Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek — go to less famous actors. The film depicts the political machinations leading to the founding of the People's Republic of China, but there's some interesting ideological spin.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Founding of a Republic")

Mr. GUOQIANG TANG (Actor): (As Chairman Mao Zedong) (Speaking foreign language).

LIM: This scene shows Mao trying, and failing, to buy cigarettes because all the shop owners have fled.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Founding of a Republic")

Mr. TANG: (As Chairman Mao Zedong) (Speaking foreign language).

LIM: If there aren't any businessmen, I can't even buy cigarettes, Chairman Mao says, let alone talk about market prosperity. We have to invite them back.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Founding of a Republic")

Mr. JIN LIU (Actor): (As Zhou Enlai) (Speaking foreign language).

LIM: We must work together with the capitalists and democracy activists, says his second-in-command, Zhou Enlai. We cannot destroy them.

That cooperation did happen but only until 1957. Then, the democracy activists and capitalists were effectively destroyed by being persecuted during the Anti-Rightist campaign. Professor Zhu Dake from Tongji University says this is just one example of the film's lack of logic.

Professor ZHU DAKE (Culture Studies, Tongji University): (Through translator) Its core is about democracy. This film is opposed to one-party dictatorship, but the real situation in China today is very far from democracy. This is a very important gap in the logic; it's almost sarcastic.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Founding of a Republic")

Unidentified Group (Actors): (As characters): (Speaking foreign language).

LIM: It's certainly startling to watch scenes of Chinese crowds shouting long live democracy, and Zhu Dake believes this could indicate that President Hu Jintao, or other influential figures, are pushing for more democracy inside the Communist Party. Another scene shows Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek talking about corruption. Fight it, and you lose the party, he says. Don't fight it, and you lose the country. Zhu Dake says the same sentiment is true today.

Prof. DAKE: (Through translator) Sixty years is one-time cycle for Chinese people. Now, the Communist Party is actually standing at the same place where the Nationalists were in the film. So the Communist Party needs to fight corruption and ensure China's fate. That's the only way out.

LIM: At the Shanghai screening, the audience wasn't bothered by fuzzy logic. The reaction was generally positive, both from 24-year-old Fan Zhen(ph) and first, 85-year-old Mr. Cai(ph).

Mr. CAI: (Through translator) We've lived through this. We came here to reminisce.

Mr. FANG ZHEN: (Through translator) I can only say I'm moved, and it's increased my patriotism. It's good enough to be a gift for our 60th anniversary, especially the last shot of the national flag waving.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Founding of a Republic")

LIM: So far, ticket sales have been record-breaking, as well they might given the film's political importance and its symbolic timing. But one thing, above all, is not clear: whether the subtext of this movie represents an act of self-criticism by China's Communist Party, or a remarkable act of blindness.

Louisa Lim, NPR News, Shanghai.

(Soundbite of music)

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

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