The Eight Hundred
Yi Zhang, Chen Yao, Augusta Xu-Holland, Haoming Yu
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This is a war epic and as soaked in blood and guts as the early parts of Saving Private Ryan and carrying similar messages in a way. War is hell, men show extreme bravery under fire and the whole effort, when looked at from a different angle seems tragic, wasteful and sad.
The Chinese film industry continues to grow, and China now has deep pockets, actually very deep pockets. This sprawling war epic is certainly testament to that. Apparently for one sequence alone, the production built about seventy buildings. It took years and years to make. And then there are the extras; even if they double up as either civilians or soldiers there are, er, legions of them. And they are not CGI holograms either.
The film tells the story of a crucial battle that took place in 1937, where about eight hundred soldiers held off the invading Japanese army. In particular, they hunkered down in a semi-ruined warehouse in Shanghai to which the invading forces laid siege. Just across the river from this warehouse, Westerners and non-combatants were quarantined and were able to watch the fierce fight unfold. This gives director Guan Hu (Mr Six) the chance to make an ‘audience’ comment on the tactics and the state of the battle for our benefit.
It also gives us, the shell-shocked viewer, some relief from the twenty-minute furious and loud battle scenes. As with many a war film, we have the trope of a few plucky heroes who we can pick out and follow during the chaos onscreen. They each have their little visual quirk – one has a cigar in his mouth all the time, another has a bandage tied around the middle of his face and so on. The actual character development does not go much deeper than that but, then again, it is not supposed to. This little band of brothers is emblematic of the thousands of unknown soldiers that fight alongside them.
There is always the problem with this genre of being a sort of advert for militarism. As with Western war films it is hard to celebrate heroism without spruiking patriotism. After all, wars like this pitch nation against nation. In fact, The Eight Hundred ran into some difficulties owing to its portrayal of Japanese fanaticism. Given the still not-fully-healed sore between China and Japan over aspects of the Second World War this is perhaps unsurprising.
Also, it is now obvious to all and sundry today that China is on the rise (if not on the march) and so one could expect elements of bellicose patriotism to creep in. One particular sequence, where soldiers struggle to raise the Chinese flag in the face of Japanese aircraft fire, shows the film at its most hokey. This is a war epic and as soaked in blood and guts as the early parts of Saving Private Ryan and carrying similar messages in a way. War is hell, men show extreme bravery under fire and the whole effort, when looked at from a different angle seems tragic, wasteful and sad. Guan Hu is perfectly well aware of that irony too. So, if you can withstand the 147 minutes bombardment and keep your perspective, you might even have got what you signed up for.