The range of Chinese films distributed in the West is increasing. This popular genre picture from 2007 has been distributed in UK cinemas and on DVD by Metrodome. The film is a biopic about a hero of the People’s Liberation Army who joined up in 1939 and was invalided out after an incident in the Korean War in 1951. Gu Zidi is first seen as the Captain of the 9th Company of a regiment fighting street battles with the Kuomintang Nationalist Forces in 1948. Reprimanded for his treatment of POWs, Gu is then required to base his depleted company on the rise formed around an old mine and to defend it until the last man is standing. He is instructed to retreat only if he hears the ‘Assembly’ call by the regimental bugler. The defence of the old mine is undoubtedly heroic but Gu loses all his men and is himself rendered unconscious. Apart from a later incident in the Korean campaign, most of the rest of the film is presented via flashbacks as Gu attempts to get the authorities to find the grave of his dead comrades who had all been taken into the mine. His story never waivers but he can’t be sure if the bugle call was ever played because he has lost much of his hearing. Did the Army abandon his company? Was the fault his?
The film has generated interest amongst Western fans of military action films (with their detailed interest in campaigns, weapons and strategies). Several commentators compare the film to Saving Private Ryan (a film that has undoubtedly been of great importance in influencing the representation of battles, but is possibly overpraised as a drama). A more helpful comparison would be the South Korean film Taegukgi (Brotherhood, SK 2004) and possibly Eastwood’s Letters from Iwo Jima (2006). The Korean connection is strong in many ways (I’m sure I read somewhere that there was some contact between the two groups of filmmakers). Because the original incident is a Civil War battle, there is a strong sense of the ‘home front’ mixed with the military action and of the confusion over identities which also occurs in the Korean story. There is also a similar attitude towards the absolute horror of war and its representation via CGI. For me, Assembly was perhaps too gory – I’m happy to accept that “war is hell” and I don’t need to see so many dismembered bodies. It did seem at times that arms and legs were too easily severed by a single rifle shot. On the other hand, director Feng Xiaogang did choose to play all the battle scenes via a much reduced palette of blues, greys and reds that certainly didn’t glamourise the violence.
The problem for Western action fans is that the biopic spends plenty of time on the struggle to establish where the bodies are buried. The action is crammed into the first half only – apart from a few flashback scenes. The whole history of the long war – more than 20 years from the first Japanese incursions into Manchuria to the stalemate across the 38th parallel in Korea in 1953 – for what became the PLA is barely known about by audiences in the West and this history and how it is explored is what I found most interesting about Assembly. The film is propagandistic in some ways and also as sentimental as many Hollywood films, but overall it is quite a sober and moving account of an important period. I hope we get to see more Chinese films like this.