Synopsis – From the acclaimed filmmaker behind Mr. Six comes a riveting war epic. In 1937, eight hundred Chinese soldiers fight under siege from a warehouse in the middle of the Shanghai battlefield, completely surrounded by the Japanese army.
My Take – Though war continues to remain one of the worst acts of human kind, it also continues to be one of the most sought out subject for filmmakers across the globe. While some filmmakers are determined to lens the specific time period through the horrific experience of the survivors and the innocent bystanders, others prefer to showcase it through the eyes of the soldiers themselves, to display their valor, country love, and arguably to promote jingoism, depending on the country and the language the film is released from.
Though it is hard to pin point which category director Guan Hu‘s latest Chinese film falls into, as I am admittedly unaware of China’s politics, however, his latest film which focuses on the standoff at the Sihang Warehouse during the Battle of Shanghai, has been through a chaos of its own. Right from its last minute yanking from its opening-night slot at last year’s Shanghai International Film Festival after being deemed inappropriate by the People’s Republic of China, the film apparently just shifted around from one date to another, one specifically caused by the shutting of cinemas as a result of COVID-19.
Finally released in August, in the form of a 13 minutes shorter cut, surprising everyone, the film has gone on to rack up $468.8 million on a $80 million budget, making it the biggest box office hit of 2020. Touted as China’s equivalent to Dunkirk (2017), this painstaking recreation of the defiant stand that inspired a nation is the first commercial Chinese film to be shot entirely with IMAX cameras, a technical feat that is unquestionably stupendous, and clearly shows on screen.
Sure, like most critics have pointed out, the film does unfortunately lacks in the area of character development, however, considering the finesse with which director Guan Hu has recreated the elaborately staged combat sequences, it sure deserves a watch on the biggest screen possible all in order to witness the story through spectacle and bombast.
Set in 1937, the Chinese army is on the verge of losing the war, following the Imperial Japanese Army’s invasion during the Second Sino-Japanese War. While Shanghai is completely ruined and abandoned, one warehouse remains. Occupied by the 524th Regiment of the National Revolutionary Army which consists of grizzled veterans, staunch patriots, fearful deserters and untrained civilians led by Lieutenant Colonel Xie Jinyuan (Du Chun), the 452 soldiers battle and empower 3rd Imperial Japanese Division attacks day and night, to defend the six-story Sihang Warehouse, a building co-owned by Shanghai’s four major banks.
With their numbers significantly declining every day, on orders from Chiang Kai-shek, the comparatively small army continues to prevent the invasion of International Settlement just across from the Suzhou Creek, all in a bid to win international sympathy at the upcoming nine-power conference in Brussels. To bid time, Jinyuan even exaggerates the total number to 800, in order to downplay the strength of the Japanese.
As all the while the crowds hanging from the riverside street of bustling, well-lit area, and the privileged, including foreign press photographers, witness from their balconies, what the soldiers endeavor to keep the enemy at bay despite having less troops and inferior provisions. Like the evacuation of Dunkirk, or the Battle of the Alamo, the battle ended in a resounding defeat for the defenders, but helped turn the tide of public opinion in favor of the Chinese Nationalist forces.
Honestly, the most refreshing element of the film is that despite the absence of martial arts, the film is as bombastic and melodramatic as one might expect it to be. The film alternates between the warehouse action, and the events in the concession. In and around the warehouse, the action includes close combat, snipers, and occasional speeches. The switching to the concession side gives the audience a break from the action, and keeps the narrative fresh.
Equipped with an $80 million budget, the film actually looks more expensive than its price tag with high quality special effects and an imposing sense of scale. The film is relentlessly thrilling, and exquisitely photographed on huge, practical sets. And the action hits hard, making you feel like you’re caught in the chaos, with bullets flying by your head.
Here, director Guan Hu, takes full advantage of the IMAX technology and builds tension in his action scenes, throwing us in the middle of the war zone. Anyone can get killed at any time, and each death feels earned, never out of place. The shock of death is amplified by how the film depicts the horrific treatment and conditions of the soldiers, sometimes by their own superiors.
There are some surprises too. The opening hour has an unexpected focus on the cowardice and lack of commitment to the anti-Japanese struggle among a gang of featured character actors whose story arcs turn out to be less than conventionally inspiring.
Here, director Guan Hu also makes the most of the warehouse’s view of the sybaritic life on the opposite bank and vice versa. While Soldiers gaze across the river, yearning for safe haven, only for bourgeois Chinese citizens and members of the foreign press to lap up the ensuing spectacle. The innocent bystanders across the Suzhou Creek add motivation to fight and the promise of escape for the soldiers. The front-row-seats for the civilians provide the ability for the audience to watch the soldiers fight, and keep the soldiers focused on what they are fighting for. It helps build tension and provide emotional weight to the conflict, especially as the film visually illustrates how close the Japanese military are to wiping out the settlement.
But despite the film’s unique story and impressive production work, the film lacks the necessary element of character. I really couldn’t tell you much of anything about any of the characters in the film. The characters aren’t bland, the filmmakers just did not develop or explore them, as the film is more focused on the action than the soldiers themselves.
We are given hints of character for a few soldiers, but not enough to fully invest in their journey. Even characters who seem intended as audience surrogates, such as two brothers (Zhang Junyi and Ou Hao) caught up in events while fleeing from their invaded northern province, either fall by the narrative wayside or are killed off abruptly.
Performance wise, Du Chun stars as the inspiring commanding officer, while Oho Ou and Zhang Junyi share significant screen time. Tang Yixin takes the film’s only significant female role, but Jiang Wu and Wang Qianyuan, as a pair of weary yet humorous veterans, make for the film’s most memorable characters. On the whole, ‘The Eight Hundred’ is a very enjoyable war epic with a towering technical achievement commanding attention from start to finish.
Directed – Hu Guan
Rated – R
Run Time – 149 minutes