EIGHT HUNDRED HEROES
The new Chinese film The Eight Hundred, directed by Guan Hu, is a major piece of contemporary film history - or history itself. Touted as a monument to the 70th Anniversary of the founding of the Republic it has been given the full treatment - giant budget, star names and the first use of IMAX cameras on a Chinese film.
Its subject, the 1937 defense against the Japanese advance of the Shanghai Sihang (Four Banks) warehouse on the north bank of Suzhou Creek is a marker in the Chinese national self-image, something comparable to Dunkirk or Gallipoli - or the Spanish Siege of the Alcazar. Retreating Chinese forces left a single regiment claiming they were eight hundred men, though actually the number was near half that. Against all expectation, these held the position for four days and four nights beating back six enemy attacks. The story was made more dramatic and strange by the fact that across the river in sight of the fighting, the British concession was protected from attack under tacit agreement that foreign interests would not be damaged for fear of bringing their countries into the conflict.
The original subject was irresistible to Chinese filmmakers, with a couple of films made at the time, one released silent because the Japanese had occupied the area that had sound equipment and in the seventies it became of one of the great successes of Taiwanese film, Ding Shanxi’s 1976 Ba bai zhuang shi/The Eight Hundred Heroes which managed to employ most of the notables of the then booming Chinese off-shore film industries and was widely shown in Australian Chinatowns. In particular, the last half hour was a suitably rousing action spectacle and that film appears to have established itself as the popular record of the event.
The new production starts with the advance to the warehouse featuring troops who insist they are not deserters but stragglers from other columns. The building formerly used by multiple banks has four feet thick walls which resist easy attack. Japanese close in and sweep through the open entrance only to have a roller door rung down trapping them inside to be slaughtered. They respond with gas bombs like those they have used in other campaigns, with the Chinese using masks and urine soaked scarves to protect themselves.
At this stage we become familiar with several of the stragglers and the officers, recognition which is easier for the home audience spotting performers known to them but not familiar to us. We also discover the film’s most striking and surreal element - the pleasure quarter of the British Concession within hailing distance of the embattled forces. Curious residents gather in the street to watch the fighting just across the river. A British soldier mutters “Mustard gas!” as fumes reach him. The film makes the leisure center more glitteringly opulent than it was in real life, with Western Brand Names recognisable in the signage - RKO and Paramount prominent among them. We later get a clear view of the Coca-Cola sign painted on the side wall of the Sihang Warehouse - decoration or comment.
We are also introduced to a white horse which has been stabled in the building and which Zhang Junyi the young peasant straggler is able to relate to and calm. This one’s a relation to those given (obscure) symbolic value in Viva Zapata or Lawrence of Arabia but as events work out it will be deployed more skillfully in this film’s scheme than those were.
A few of the stragglers have worked out that they can escape the warehouse through the water ways in its basement and start off, only to be faced with the tattooed kamikaze troops attacking - setting up another of the film’s set-piece battles.
When the Japanese work a breach with an earthmover Chinese soldiers strap bombs to their bodies and leap down to their deaths blasting it and shouting their names to be repeated to their families.
A Chinese flag is prepared and a girl scout swims the river with it - intense debate over whether raising it is worth the retaliation it will provoke and the decision that, with confusing signals coming from the Generalissimo, their function is symbolic and this is a suitable defiance. It develops possibly the most impressive of the film’s action scenes with Japanese planes strafing the roof and troops being mown down keeping the flag in position. A Goodyear blimp above observes this from close range and across the river erratic fire sends spectators diving for cover. The final shot of the flag still flying above the smoke of battle is possibly the film’s most stirring image.
At this point the piece changes direction. The Japanese Commander calls for a parlay explaining that he’s being replaced for his failure and his successor will bring up heavy artillery which will end the battle. Xin Baiqing the opportunistic Chinese Press photographer accused of being disconnected from the action finds himself immersed in it. Inside the building, a historic shadow puppet is rigged for one performance for the troops who shower as part of the preparation for death.
The makers assume that the audience is now sufficiently familiar with the characters to follow their individual narratives, not altogether warranted with the old problem of men in uniform looking like one another. These stories are unclear and not all that involving - the soldier for whom cigarettes are his life etc.
However, parallel with this is the development of the far bank. With the defenders being mowed down as they cross the river to safety (and the surrender of their weapons), characters we have seen as spectators become foreground - the girl guides, the school children. Brothel owner Liu Xiaoqing breaks out chests of needed morphine. A British soldier opens fire on the Japanese and, most interesting, the Chinese Opera Troop who have been entertaining are now inserted into the action with cuts of their drama shown unrealistically as studio constructed myth spectacle. The film achieves the intended effect of suggesting Chinese history. Chinese experience is concentrated into this moment.
Realised on an enormous scale with impressive attention to detail (no wooden pistols with streamers here) the film can stand with the Christopher Nolan Dunkirk or Peter Weir’s Gallipolli. However, that’s not the end of the story.
The Eight Hundred arrives in a swirl of speculation, having been pulled from its festival dates and original release last year with hardline Communists complaining about celebration of an event in which the party had not participated and in particular about the glorification of the Chinese flag still cherished by the Nationalists, not unlike the controversy over the Confederate flag in the States. Guardians of Chinese history are quick to ridicule this stance as rewriting truth.
The version of The Eight Hundred now circulating is a quarter of an hour shorter than the originally announced length and there is speculation as to whether there was erratic timing or actual deletions.
This leaves the viewer with mindset problems. Along with the question of whether the film is involving and whether it is accurate, we have the distracting question of what its home country wants it to tell us. Outside the Chinese speaking market, it’s likely to antagonise more than it converts to the Mainland cause as people detect or imagine its message content.
I tend to see this as clouding the issue. The films of the Shaw Brothers, Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung and Tsui Hark gave us a pathway into the Chinese experience without having to stop at any propaganda toll booth. That was one of their appeals and indeed one of the things that filmmakers like Chen Kaige rejected them for.
Here we lose immersion in the scene by pondering whether the captured Chinese troops crucified on the building opposite are a stark example of the savagery of the campaign or are included to justify scenes of Chinese soldiers, some with pistols held to their own heads shooting unarmed Japanese prisoners. The silhouettes of the dead Chinese are seen again in the background of the final night’s action - as a reminder. Do the Chinese continue shooting deserters (that first instance makes it into the trailer) or is the offer to leave taken up by several of the soldiers lined up for the probably fatal battle meant to be genuine. The editing deliberately obscures this. Is the absence of a close up of the Chinese flag an artistic choice or a concession to the ideologue?
As in their John Rabe films, it’s still culture shocking to find Nazi good guys sheltering under the Swastika flag, as the Germans attempt to aid our heroes. The British and Americans are shown with considerable ambivalence.
Film makers second guessing themselves always become ridiculous. Think of Mikhail Romm’s 1937 Lenin on October/Lenin v oktyabre where a foreground silhouette appears in the sixties re-issue obscuring its benign Stalin figure or the voice-over added to the 1943 Lewis Milestone North Star to tell us the Russians aren’t good guys anymore. This is not unlike symbolism seeping into the sixties art film. Is the Church the first thing seen on the return to civilisation in Deliverance because it is the tallest building in the town or because it represents a break with barbarity. By the time you’ve figured that out you’ve lost immersion in the scene.
Apparently the new Zhang Yimou production One Second is having similar problems and the same fog enshrouded Feng Xiaogang’s I Am Not Madam Bovary. Feng is the country’s most prominent film maker and it seems odd that he hasn’t been entrusted with one of these milestone historical epics. His last film to arrive, the New Zealand shot 2019 Zhi you yun zhi dao/Only Cloud Knows was almost perversely noncontroversial. We did see Feng acting in the excellent Mr. Six directed by Eight Hundred’s Guan Hu whose background is in prestige Chinese TV.
It will be interesting to watch the course this one takes in international distribution. At home it’s going gangbusters.
For more detail check Derek Elley’s Chinese Cinema Blog.