Feng Xiaogang is better known for colorful epics such as “The Banquet” in the U.S.. Well, the Chinese filmmaker is poised to redefine war epics in the Chinese war film “The ASSEMBLY” (2007). The Chinese have dubbed this film as their answer to the award-winning film by Spielberg; “Saving Private Ryan“ and to South Korea‘s “Tae Guk Gi“. The film is a powerful achievement in Chinese cinema, because of the humanity of its portrayal and the technically sound intense battle sequences. The film was inspired by true events.
The film takes place during the Chinese civil war of 1948 between the Communist People’s Liberation Army and the Nationalist Kuomin Tang forces (KMT). Captain Gu Zidi (Zhang Hanyu) leads the 9th Company (139th Regiment) and the group is determined to win at any cost. Gu did time in prison for killing his captive P.O.W.’s after they’ve already surrendered. Reassigned to the frontlines to defend a mineral mine from the approaching KMT Army, the 9th company is outgunned and outnumbered by the approaching army--this KMT Army is equipped with tanks, and heavy artillery. Gu’s 9th company suffer heavy losses that leads to the men arguing as whether they should fight or retreat, they are supposed to retreat once they hear a Bugle call but Gu’s hearing has been impaired during one of the assaults. Some soldiers say that they heard it while some didn’t--Gu is unable to verify whether or not the Bugle call has been made, so he commits his men to fight on--to the very last man standing.
The first half of the film focuses on the 9th company’s experiences in the frontline. The film’s battle sequences are among the best I’ve seen and undoubtedly the best ever produced in Chinese cinema. The sequences are gripping, intense and riveting as you see the men of the 9th company fight on to the last man. Shot in a grayish hue, (almost black and white) and shaky camera work, the film has that very realistic feel. Director Feng manages to shoot the scenes with a lot of power and intensity--although I have to say that some of the shots isn’t exactly very harmonious or doesn’t really mesh well as with “Saving Private Ryan”. There is a lot of blood and gore, a lot of spewing mud and powerful explosions. Don’t get me wrong, the scenes are VERY exciting and riveting but for some reason, it felt that it lacked an emotional connection; the disagreements between Gu and his C.O. Wang (Yuan Wenkang) does have its merits but I thought they were just your usual conflicts. The battle sequences are indeed a near stellar achievement in Chinese cinema, but without a proper inner conflict, the scenes lose some of its effect. The usual overwhelming army against a small band of soldiers have been done numerous times before but hey, the battle isn’t any less exciting.
The second half of the film focuses on Gu’s struggle as a half-deaf war veteran. Director Feng does successfully flesh out its main character as Gu first enlists in the Korean war before he attempts a post-war existence. For some reason, any records of the 9th company or Gu himself has been lost by record keepers. Gu becomes very frustrated that the sacrifices of his men are unrecognized by the country they fought for--to ensure the continued power of the State. I think Feng was trying to move to a political commentary as we all know the score: Bureaucrats tend to use soldiers as expendable resources and make body counts irrelevant for the common good. Sadly, this is the work of a soldier.
The film’s human drama itself becomes very predictable and offers nothing new. Please keep in mind that Feng is a very mainstream Chinese director and of course, he would never make a critical war film. The movie is very China-friendly and full of flag-waving elements. The inner issues Gu experiences is very defined but the film itself offers no surprises in this regard. Serving in the People’s army is portrayed as a righteous cause and the existing authority figures will no doubt take care of its soldiers. Thankfully, Zhang Hanyu’s performance is convincing enough although some scenes had the dangerous potential to become overly melodramatic.
“THE ASSEMBLY” is not a perfect film. The film’s main premise is very involving but it just doesn’t really “click” as a “pure” epic war film. I have a few ideas as to how this film could have been better--Feng’s decision to avoid the political issues somewhat kills the film’s emotional potential. Instead, the director opts to make the portrayal of war in human “effect” and sidesteps any indictment or finger-pointing at any political body for the causes of war itself. Feng’s war epic is very “friendly” and it never approaches the level of excellence in emotions as achieved by other war films. The film is very “human” in its approach and very sympathetic--although not entirely patriotic. The film offers nothing surprising or offers a complex dramatic resolution. The film never chooses a side (Feng Xiaogang would be banned from filmmaking if he did so) and the film is definitely geared towards an international audience. “The Assembly”’s emotional content is very basic but despite its massive commercial appeal, the film still commands high esteem.
There are quite a few War Movies made about soldiers reminiscent of war. Saving Private Ryan, Brotherhood, Flags of Our Fathers and Days of Glory to name a few. This movie ranks with the best of them. This movie is surprising in many ways. First of its production values are very high and on par with the best of Hollywood or European Cinema. In fact this is a much better movie than Enemy at the Gates or Flags of Our Fathers and is quite possibly what Flags wanted to be. It … more