Noted for his popular comedies that satirize the enormous social changes China has undergone in the past decade, director Feng Xiaogang (馮小剛) tested his talents in the martial arts historical genre with the less-than-successful Banquet (夜宴) in 2006.
The director returns with Assembly (集結號), his first attempt at a wartime movie, which received rave reviews and became a blockbuster last year in China; an unexpected achievement as the film features an unfamiliar cast, except for Hu Jun (胡軍), who plays a small role.
A story about a People's Liberation Army veteran who survives the Japanese invasion, Chinese Civil War and Korean War, Assembly is likely to crack open the international market for the Chinese director with its masterful camera work, well-developed and moving story and appealing moral message.
The film's title refers to the bugle call used to order a retreat, which captain Gu Zidi (played by Zhang Hanyu (張涵予) and his 47 men listen out for as their PLA unit, ill-equipped and outnumbered, is sent to the front to delay the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) forces, in 1948.
The call never comes and Gu finds himself the sole survivor of the battle, who is unable to prove what happened. Wracked with guilt, the veteran carries on fighting through the Korean War. Against all odds, he survives.
When hostilities end, Gu returns to the battle site, now a coal mine, and tries to uncover evidence of the battle and the fate of his fallen comrades.
Assembly tackles universal themes rather than historical specifics, with PLA and KMT forces that resemble nothing like those taught in history lessons.
Stylistically similar to Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan, the film eloquently shows the absurdity and follies of war through brutal realism and gory violence. For the first hour of the film, the terror on the battlefield creeps through the relentless camera work. Audiences are pulled into the madness by witnessing mutilated arms and legs flying across the screen and torsos being dragged through pools of blood and piles of corpses.
Directed by: Feng Xiaogang
Starring: Zhang Hanyu (張涵予) as Gu Zidi, Liao Fan (廖凡) as Jiao Dapeng, Wang Baoqiang (王寶強) as Jiang Maocai, Deng Chao (鄧超) as Er Dou, Yuan Wenkang (袁文康) as Wang Jincun
Running time: 124 minutes
Language: in Mandarin with Chinese and English subtitles
Taiwan release: Today
There's nothing noble in the war depicted, nor is there patriotic fervor or triumphalism. The soldiers are not heroes but ordinary people gripped by fear and are blindly obedient. Love for their compatriots produces acts of bravery.
The film takes a more contemplative tone in its latter half when the action gives way to a human drama about the veteran Gu's fight for to have his dead comrades' sacrifice recognized by the authorities. To some viewers, the movie's true strength may be the examination of humanity the trauma and injustice of war.
The sugarcoated ending, however, is a letdown. The Communist authorities emerge as a benevolent, paternalistic force that grieves for and honors the country's fallen sons. Given China's strict control of the country's movie industry, that Feng stuck to the safe path comes as no surprise.
With Assembly, Feng not only sets a new benchmark for Chinese war movies, but has proven himself to be a talented blockbuster maker who excels in different genres.