Wednesday 25 June 2008

Heroes buried by development

Ji jie hao [Assembly] (2007), directed by Xiaogang Feng

Assembly is China’s powerful answer to Saving Private Ryan (1998), the first war movie produced for a mass audience and for export, a project consciously driven by director Xiaogang Feng and his producers, the Huayi brothers.

Set towards the end of the Chinese civil war, the film tells the story of the 9th company, a battle-worn ground of People’s Liberation Army infantry led by the indominatable Captain Gu Zidi (Hanyu Zhang). The film opens with an utterly gripping urban battle against the Guomindang in which the 9th are victorious, but decimated, cut down by machine gun fire, grenades and artillery. Rarely has the sheer goriness of war been captured so compellingly or shot so beautifully – for all its horror, the scene retains something of the Chinese aesthetic that has become so popular with Western audiences of late. But the grim reality hits home soon enough as 9th company’s Political Officer is torn to shreds, leading Gu to order his troops to refuse to accept a surrender plea from the surviving Guomindang.

As punishment, Gu is briefly imprisoned, then the 45 surviving men are assigned to hold off several thousand enemy troops at an abandoned trench and mine. It is a mission doomed to fail, their only hope of survival the signal to retreat – a bugle playing the assembly call (hence the film’s title) from regional HQ. The 9th company is gradually destroyed, but Gu loyally refuses to retreat, despite some of his men claiming to have heard the bugle. Eventually, the captain is the only survivor, and spends the rest of the film desperately trying to compel the new People’s Republic to recognize the martyrdom of his ‘brothers’.

The film doesn’t flow particularly easy after the disastrous battle: cutting forward to Gu recovering in hospital and no one being able to confirm his story, and soon cutting forward again to Gu serving in the Korean War, and then again to his return to China. How the battle ended is deliberately left vague and is only revealed towards the end; but the mystery could have been created less confusingly, and there is no real need for the choppiness. What it means, though, is that, despite being a war movie, a good half of the film is not set in wartime at all, which makes it somewhat anti-climactic.

That said, it also avoids the twin dangers of glorifying war and constituting propaganda. If there is a political subtext to Assembly, it is buried as deep as the bodies of the 9th company are within the mine. It’s the death of the Political Officer that causes Gu’s original ‘mistake’; and he asks for another – redeeming a cowardly scholar he meets in prison by appointing him. But if anything, there’s a subtle critique of the way the PRC dealt with war heroes. Gu wanders through a graveyard, appalled by the anonymous markers, furious with the Chinese leadership for refusing to acknowledge the 9th company’s sacrifice. ‘Their parents gave them names. How did they become nameless men?’ he asks. Returning to the site of the battle to find the mine operational again, Gu cannot find the bodies of his comrades, buried beneath a mountain of coal, no matter how long he digs. As ‘compensation’ he is criticized for ‘obstructing the mine’s economic development’. It is as if the sacrifices that made the People’s Republic possible are literally buried by development – the pressing post-war concern (although, in true Chinese style, the mine is fully uncovered by a further act of development, a massive irrigation project).

As a compelling addition to the war movie genre (of which I am not normally a fan), what Assembly does best as a piece of Chinese cinema is to show the universality of the experience of war. Gu’s men are just men, not Stakhanovite warriors magnified to ten times their normal size, (despite the occasional lapses into melodramatic heroism). They are stoic, goofy, proud, scared, loyal, doing their best in horrific circumstances. To an audience accustomed to seeing Chinese men gliding around in flying silken robes, Assembly presents them as just soldiers – not rarified, not Orientalised – just men in wartime, with all their human strengths and frailties. Moving, and occasionally gripping, it has understandably been a hit domestically, demonstrating that the Chinese film industry can now compete on terrain hitherto held securely by Hollywood.


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