Nether Regions 04.27.10: Assembly
Posted by Chad Webb on 04.27.2010
One of the best war films of the last 10 years is one you’ve probably never heard of. Click here to read more about it….
Nether Regions started as a segment of the Big Screen Bulletin that meant to showcase films that have been discontinued on DVD, are out of print in the United States, are only available in certain regions outside the United States, or are generally hard to find. Now it is a column all its own! You might ask "Why should I care about a film I have no access to?" My goal is to keep these films relevant because some of them genuinely deserve to be recognized. Every time I review a new film I will have a list of those I covered below so you can see if they have been announced for DVD release, or are still out of print.
Starring: Hanyu Zhang, Chao Deng, and Wenkang Yuan Directed By: Feng Xiaogang Written By: Heng Liu Running Time: 123 minutes Theatrical Release Date: December 20, 2007 (China) Missing Since: 2007 Existing Formats: Only Region free discs Netflix Status: Not Available Availability: Pretty Darn Rare
Over the past year or so, I have found myself leaning more towards war films that focus on other countries, or take the viewpoint of a country other than America. Although plenty of classic war pictures have been made about World War I, World War II, Vietnam, and Iraq, there came a point where I felt I had seen and learned just about all I could about those conflicts from the eyes of the US. I can never learn too much about them I suppose, but films like Fires on the Plain, The Burmese Harp, Days of Glory (Indigienes), and now Assembly have fascinated me because they offer different perspectives, more history, and fresh stories.
Maybe it is due to how little I know about certain conflicts in these countries and what they represented to the people that draws me in. Even Letters from Iwo Jima, which was made by Clint Eastwood and revolves around the Japanese during that battle, was vastly superior to Flags of Our Fathers, the American version. Observing the tales and mindset of people from a time period you don't know as much about can be very enlightening, can broaden your horizons, and can increase your maturity as a viewer. I could be reading too much into it, but I like to think these films have affected me in these noticeable ways.
The first poster.
Assembly might not be the most revolutionary war film, but it is competently and thoughtfully constructed. In many respects it is reminiscent of Saving Private Ryan...except for the fact that this is about the Chinese Civil War and that the battle sequences exhibit a faster-paced energy and visceral quality that is mesmerizing. The themes contained here are widespread, but definitely relevant and attention-grabbing. This was among the first mainland-produced films to portray the Chinese Civil War in such an authentic fashion. What Director Feng Xiaogang proves with Assembly is the omnipresence of war, that these troops are just regular men, and that any audience in any country can comprehend and relate to their struggles.
Based on the novel Guan Si ("A Legal Case"), the action picks up in 1948, during the Huaihai Campaign of the Chinese Civil War with Gu Zidi (Hanyu Zhang) and the Communist People's Liberation Army fighting the Kuomintang (National Revolutionary Army) and winning despite suffering heavy casualties. When his significant Political Officer dies, Gu angrily orders the shooting of the already surrendering soldiers. This command is largely refused by his men, and he is imprisoned as punishment. While being held, he meets Wang Jincun (Wenkang Yuan), a soldier who was jailed for cowardice. Gu is quickly instructed to take his 47 surviving men and hold off the enemy troops at an abandoned mine location. With so few men left at his disposal and with the request for more immediately denied, the hope of emerging victorious is dim. Gu and his 9th Company are ordered to continue fighting until they hear the assembly bugle call. Whether or not that call came is up for debate, as some men claimed to have heard and others say they did not. Gu demands that they stay and fight, and as a result he is the sole survivor. Years after the horrific defeat, he desperately attempts to convince the New People's Republic that his troops existed and did give their lives even though all signs point to the contrary.
Assembly examines, among other ideas, heroism, sacrifice, and duty. This story makes us wonder how many great battles have gone unknown and unrecognized for various reasons. Gu's men were listed as MIA (missing in action), and it begs the question of how often this has happened before, in any country. I have a POW/MIA t-shirt, which displays the number of American soldiers missing from each war. Were any of those merely lost in epic battles that have been forgotten? How much of our war history can't be substantiated? Gu's quest to make sure the martyrdom of those 47 men is justly acknowledged is heartfelt, determined, and engrossing. There is a shattering scene where Gu walks through a graveyard of entirely "anonymous" markers. Any of them could be someone he knows. The chaos and disarray of war is felt with every lonely gravesite.
Feng Xiaogang is clearly a filmmaker with an aptitude for action. His formation and execution of the gloriously violent battle sequences is furiously full-speed ahead, unrelenting, and captivating. They are graphic and brutal, but also blunt and accurate to the gruesome aspects of living in a trench. Distinguishing the friends from the foes is occasionally difficult as the uniforms are not that different, but the four intense battles are exhilarating and immersive. There is always a bit of disconnection when striving for the viewer to experience the horrors of war, but Feng does an admirable job of demonstrating what the defensive position is like. One of the best characters, Wang Jincun, whose brilliant performance from Wenkang Yuan makes a lasting impression in a few short minutes, is shown as being truly afraid of participating. He is a person I enjoyed watching almost as much as Gu because his awkward silence makes it evident that war is just not for him, yet the carnage unfolding around him changes his mode of thinking whether he embraces it or not. South Korea's Park Ju-chun stages it all with such ferocity and frankness as the dirt and mud covers the soldiers' faces.
Gu Zidi on the field of battle.
Feng Xiaogang is one of China's most commercially successful filmmakers, and it's easy to see why. The color of Assembly is that familiar sepia-toned image with slight desaturation. The fact that many of these battles occur during the winter, combined with the ugly uniforms and the grime causes that strained coloring to enhance the sheer ugliness of the situation. This is basically a three-act effort with the first part soaking up approximately 60 minutes of gory clashes. Though the appearance recalls South Korea's outstanding Tae Guk Gi and Saving Private Ryan, Feng does not drown in those styles. He injects his own special punch to the proceedings. He also balances the battles and the drama dexterously. The transitions and flow between the acts was an issue for some writers, but this did not bother me. The dividing was not necessarily jarring, but they exist, and are separated by text, which was fine.
The second segment transpires when Gu Zidi awakens and is treated as POW by his own camp. Because no records of the skirmish can be found, a change in the unit number, and an enemy uniform, no one believes him to be a Liberation Army Officer, and they dismiss the heroic battle assertion. He goes on to fight in the Korean War. This part can be viewed as irrelevant, but I found it to be further support of how loyal, gallant, and generally tough Gu still is even after the hardships he confronted. This also establishes how one act of courage can go a long way, and in this case, Gu makes a friend in Zhao Erdou. There is also a suspenseful moment with American troops passing by. Chao Deng is quite capable as Erdou. Gu seems benefit from a real life conscience, or someone to stabilize his rash opinions, and Erdou is one that fills that role years after that first Political Officer perishes.
Zhang Hanyu is tremendously thrilling and scene-stealing as Gu Zidi. The subtle moments before and after a battle, when he is shown to hesitate on a decision, or make mistakes, are riveting and beautifully human. He admits to numerous people that he should have died time and time again, so his fortitude and unremitting goal of honoring his fallen comrades is understandable. He witnessed bloodbaths and evil most of us could not fathom, and if those exertions were not accepted, who wouldn't go to insane lengths to prove them? Feng does not judge his main character, nor does he idolize him. Instead, Gu is portrayed as he should be, openly and sincerely.
The 9th Company marches through the bitter cold.
Feng Xiaogang has made The Banquet, a martial-arts take on Hamlet, which was re-titled The Legend of the Black Scorpion in the US, and Big Shot's Funeral, a comedy, both of which I plan on seeing soon. His versatility and delicacy is present in Assembly. He does not romanticize this war, nor does he get lost in political subtext. He avoids both with sophistication and ease. Credit is also deserving for Yue Lu's cinematography, which magnificently captures the depressing terrain, and Wang Liguang's stirring music. The script also has some unforgettable lines, one of which compares facing bullets to facing dogs.
I have heard many people make the comment that Saving Private Ryan could never capitalize after that impressive introductory D-Day battle. Some might hold similar feelings after watching Assembly, but they miss the point. Wars eventually end, and all that is left is the knowledge that the deaths of those deceased brothers have been for something, and that they have been appreciated. Shifting the concentration from battle to everyday life is a difficult mountain to climb, but Feng Xiaogang does that exceptionally well in this superb and shamefully overlooked picture.
This is not a masterpiece, but certainly an above-average war film, and one that should be available to more audiences. I would guess that many studios in America do not think it is marketable. It has no release date in the US, which is sad for a film that won most of the major awards in China. If you are a fan of war films, and are seeking more out, do yourself a favor and take a gamble here. It is worth the money. I picked up the region free Blu-Ray and it looks marvelous, and also includes an all-encompassing 70 minute documentary.
One stressful week ends, and another one begins. I will be ecstatic when this one is over. I was able to catch The Dinner Game, the 1998 French film of which the upcoming Dinner for Schmucks is based. I found it to be hilarious from start to finish and not too long either. The remake looks to lean more on slapstick, but for those who care, I recommend checking out the original. In the music department, I bought the new Sevendust album, Cold Day Memory, which is pretty standard from them, but a little better than the previous couple efforts. I thought more of the tracks stood out.
I have been continuing to watch wrestling, both TNA and WWE. They are both like car wrecks and I can't find the energy to turn away. TNA of course made RVD the new champ, which is a good move I guess. We'll see what happens. I saw the Extreme Rules pay per-view, which was incredibly mediocre and the opposite of "extreme" if you ask me. I guess the Edge/Jericho cage match was the best, but even that had crazy logic at times. The ending to the Cena/Batista match was just ridiculous.