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 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 very entertaining to boot.
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, both humanely and critically. Written from a true story 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.
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 deafness meant that he couldn't.
This 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 both the needless sacrifices of the soldiers as well as the unbelievable loyalty and integrity of Gu. Like many a Chinese hero in film, 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 so recognises the sacrifices made by their 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 on the same topic is a humane awareness of the insanity and the 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 cliché or genre types to make up for lack of drama. Assembly is a terrific picture with superb cinematography, acting, and a welcome new perspective on war.
The disc from Metrodome is a good treatment of the film with the DTS track and B-Roll of the R3 releases not included here as extras. The company are also releasing the film on Blu-ray and I imagine that this film will look fantastic on that format if mastered properly, as for this transfer it is in OAR but it does lack some detail and have aliasing and rare artefacting issues. Colours are suitably de-saturated to emphasise the browns and greys of the wartime settings, and contrast is strong. I checked the transfer quality on big and small monitors, and found the edge enhancement distracting on the larger display and longer shots looking a little soft. Overall though, a goodish transfer.
The audio comes in two Mandarin tracks, a stereo and a 5.1 option. For a film like this with amazing battles and atmosphere, the 5.1 mix is definitely superior with bombs exploding across the front, rear and centre speakers and the subwoofer churning up your diaphragm as it should do. Voices are distributed across the speakers appropriately and clarity is never in question in the mix with dialogue or music. The omission of the DTS track on this edition is disappointing, but the English subs are well translated and very easily read.
This disc begins with forced trailers of other war releases and the director's The Banquet which are coming from Metrodome, along with the theatrical trailer for this release. The main extra is a subbed making of documentary which is really a succession of featurettes concentrating on topics like the leading actor, the director, the scriptwriter, the shoot, and the CGI and SFX. It is very respectful of all involved and will probably be well appreciated by those who haven't seen this very generic approach before. The menus are based on poster art and easily used, and the dual layer disc is about 95% full.
A goodish treatment, and smaller screens will hide some of the flaws of the transfer. Those with larger displays may want to purchase the blu ray edition which we will review soon. Assembly is well worth owning, and definitely must be seen.