The images included in the review are from the standard definition release, and the film section of this review is the same as in the review of that disc
Three or four years back, I had the great fortune to see a Chinese film called World Without Thieves starring Andy Lau and Rene Liu. Most definitely a commercial film, it also had a real heart and used its central couple of attractive thieves well in a story about redemption and responsibility. The film was glossily made and featured the gorgeous accoutrements of modern capitalism as the goal of the thieves, but then chose to resolve itself in a touching anti-materialist, pro rural denouement. It was politically correct for the Chinese mainland but strong enough to not become contrived, it equated anti-materialism more with Buddhism than with Communism and was an excellent enteretainment.
In the time since that film, the director Feng Xiaogang has moved on to bigger productions that would rival the kind of financial muscle that Bill Kong and Zhang Yimou have shown in their wu xia trilogy. In 2006, there was the lavish The Banquet starring Zhang Ziyi, and now he has taken on a war epic, complete with huge scale and scarring battles. Like his earlier films, Assembly is politically correct but it approaches the Chinese experience of war in the post world war two world, both humanely and critically. Written by Liu Heng, who wrote Qiu Ju and Ju Dou for Zhang Yimou, and Red Rose, White rose for Stanley Kwan, this is a sincere tale that honours those who sacrificed their lives for the current generations of Chinese in wars versus Nationalists, Americans and more.
The opening half of the film is the valorous part with obvious comparisons to be made to Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan as second company find themselves assigned an impossible task by the Wen river. Charged to hold a strategic site of a mine against artillery, infantry and overwhelming odds, the troop diminishes as each onslaught hits them. Desperate to hear the bugle calling for a retreat, the final soldiers try to convince their captain, Gu, that the call has come but bravery overcomes their fear as the men lay down their lives. This opening half is littered with carnage that takes the breath away and tests the stomach with its ferocity as no sooner have we grown to know a soldier than he is torn apart. Self sacrifice, suicidal courage and hard won integrity assail the audience as these scared, brave men find the grave one by one.
The final fifty minutes shift into a gear not unlike the writer's previous Story of Qiu Ju as the surviving Gu fights for proper recognition and dignity for the men he led to their doom. The heroes who died alongside him have become anonymous because of the sheer numbers of the fallen and the bureaucracy of the state, but Gu will not give up until they are designated war heroes and the men's bodies are found and given proper burial. His determination is driven by the guilt he feels for being a survivor and the thought that perhaps his men did hear the retreat sounded when he couldn't.
The tale is most certainly a humanist one, but history is not changed to suit the story or to sell it to the possible US export market and the tale we are expected to appreciate is both about the almost needless sacrifices of the soldiers as well as the unbelievable loyalty and integrity of Gu. Like many a Chinese hero, he foregoes his own life for others and keeps committed to his goal of recognition for the men, he endures bureacracy, other's cynicism and his own deathwish to bring justice to the forgotten. He is a very human hero, a captain who lets his anger at an ambush lead him to a lack of mercy, but a realist who recognises the terrible loss of life around him.
This complex portrayal is to be welcomed as Chinese cinema responds to the American blockbusters that have tried to define the terrible impact of war, and recognise the sacrifices made for us now by our forefathers. If you are terribly doctrinaire, you may find the honest acceptance that the US was China's foe and that anger lead to possible war crimes unpalatable, but from where I am standing this is more honest than the story told by many western flicks. What Assembly shares with the greatest of the western films about the same topic like Paths of Glory is a humane awareness of the insanity and blasphemy that war represents, whilst recognising the terrible slaughter it causes.
After decrying its use elsewhere, Assembly uses CGI superbly to show the raking bullets destroying flesh and bone, and bombs turning human beings into cuts of meat. Never is the animation misused, and it is so well incorporated into the film as to never raise doubts in the viewer's mind about the reality of what they are seeing. The cast is superb as their hysteria mounts, and never does a performance rely on cliche or genre types to make up for lack of drama. The writing inevitably becomes episodic in the last hour as the war setpieces give way to procedural elements of the story, and this will prove difficult to follow given the number of characters introduced by the turns of events.
Assembly is a terrific picture with superb cinematography, acting and a welcome new perspective on war.
Now I watch blu-rays on my Panasonic DMP BD10A, which is a Region A player, and the Metrodome disc had some difficulty with the standard definiton extras as the trailer was presented out of ratio and the making of documentary with obscured subtitles. I don't believe that this occurs with other players, except for the US model PS3, and it must be said that the disc is a very good treatment of the film which uses the same extras as the standard definition release. The transfer easily exceeds the standard definition release with much more extensive detail and greater sharpness, with the edges that I complained of in the SD transfer much more subtle here, even on my 70 inch screen.
The Blu-ray carries the same sound options as the standard release with the wonderful addition of a DTS-HD track which has superb clarity and strong use of the sub-woofer which surpasses the fine 5.1 track for sheer oomph(that's a technical term!). The side and rear speakers get a good workout from the effects and music, and voices always come from the right place in the mix. For details on the other audio tracks and the extras please check my DVD review.
It's just a couple of quid more expensive than the standard release but that is a sound investment for the improved A/V quality of a very fine film.