Director – Guan Hu – 2019 – China – Cert. 15 – 149m – IMAX
Hopelessly outnumbered Chinese soldiers take a last stand against the Japanese in a Shanghai warehouse – in cinemas in IMAX from Wednesday, September 16th
1937, the Sino-Japanese War. The Chinese have fallen back to , Shanghai as the Japanese advance. Rounding up Chinese deserters, Colonel Xie (Du Chun) and his men of the National Revolutionary Army (NRA) hole up in the Sihang warehouse on the other side of the Souzou Creek from the International Concession from which the horrified civilians compulsively watch the conflict unfold.
A Western movie covering such a subject would likely introduce us to specific soldier characters at some length, possibly derailing the larger narrative to do this. The Chinese here do it rather differently. They take the overall sweep of the story and drop the characters in to it. There are deserters, there are brave and heroic fighters and there are men who move from the former to the latter group. The writers also sketch civilian characters living across the river. Again, the emphasis is on the Concession as a whole made up of lots of constituent individuals rather than the individuals in their own right.
Apart from two or three scenes, including one when the general has a meeting with opposite number in the Japanese Imperial Army, most of the narrative is either embedded with the Chinese forces or among the Concession’s civilians, individually or en masse. Specific characters include a deserters Iron (Jiang Wufrom To Live / Huo zhe, Zhang Yimou, 1994) and Old Abacus (Zhang Yifrom from I Am Not Madame Bovary / Wo bu shi Pan Jin Lian, Feng Xiaogang / 2014) who end up acting heroic and thirteen year old Duanwu (Ou Hau) who comes round to fighting bravely even though good people are dying around him. In fact, everyone here, whether they live or die, seems to ultimately find the courage within themselves to do the right or inspiring thing.
That goes for the civilians too. Lady casino proprietor Madame Rong (Liu Xiaoqing) pulls two wooden cases of morphine from hidden storage compartments. A young banking employee dashes across a bridge under fire to help the troops lay a comms line from the besieged army to the Concession.
The film was pulled from the 2019 Shanghai Film Festival following which it spent a year in limbo before the Chinese censors agreed to pass it for general release, allegedly shorn of some 13 minutes.
The official objections likely relate to the depiction of the NRA since, broadly speaking, that was the army of what later became the fiercely independent Taiwan and the flag they raise is today’s Taiwanese flag. The raising of the flag on the warehouse rooftop is a big deal at the dramatic heart of the film, a gesture of defiance against the invading Japanese, with one Chinese soldier after another losing their lives to keep it aloft.
One can certainly see the influence of the present day Chinese authorities in the film’s poster images – one poster has the flag so far in the distance you can’t tell which flag it actually is, while another crops most of it out of the frame so you can see an ambiguous red which could easily be the People’s Republic Of China flag. No such ambiguity exists in the film itself, though, where it’s definitely the Taiwanese flag.
The final moments of the conflict, as the Chinese soldiers attempt to cross the bridge to the Concession under Japanese fire, seems to end almost in mid-scene. There’s a little coda of the warehouse building which is still standing today (only one original wall survives from the conflict, apparently), surrounded by the sprawling, high tech skyline of present-day Shanghai to remind us that China has developed into a serious, contemporary world power.
The fighting and action, which comes in bursts, is both thrilling and bloody. (It’s unlikely that what was cut was due to objections with violence). There is surprising little of what might be called hand to hand combat, most of the action being guns and a flame thrower being fired and people getting hit by bullets, explosives or, unusually for movies, glass or shrapnel fragments in the face or eye. First one then many soldiers strap explosives to their torsos to jump out of high storey windows onto Japanese forces on the ground below who are covered Roman infantry style by a surface of individual metal shields, calling out their names and hometowns in an act of existential defiance as they jump. A Chinese version of Pro Patria Mori.
The story has been filmed twice before, in China as The Eight Hundred Heroes (Ba bai zhuang shi, Ying Yunwei, 1938) and in Taiwan again as The Eight Hundred Heroes (Ba bai zhuang shi, Ting Shan-Hsi, 1976) . The 2019 version has been shot with IMAX cameras and the level of visual detail on the screen is frankly astonishing. A whole section of Shanghai in 1937 has been created on the screen. On one side of the Souzou Creek is the war-torn area in the middle of which sits the Sihang warehouse. On the other is the International Concession, the area of Shanghai where the Europeans live, a bustling hive of neon-lit night life which the Japanese forces would leave well alone until 1941. The difference between the two areas couldn’t be more stark. A Good Year airship with international observers flies above the river.
While the performances of the Chinese cast are generally excellent, director Guan doesn’t seem to know how to handle the Westerners who live alongside the Chinese in the Concession. Or perhaps he can’t really be bothered. Either way, the performances of the Westerners feels stilted and their dialogue artificial. This is a minor quibble, but perhaps a separate unit to deal with the English language script elements and cast performances would have worked wonders.
For all the controversy surrounding it and despite the fact that certain moments tip over into unashamed and and overly emotive Chinese nationalism, this is nevertheless a stunning achievement which deserves to be seen on an IMAX screen it all its extraordinary production glory.
The Eight Hundred is out in cinemas in IMAX in the UK on Wednesday, September 16th.