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cast: Hanyu Zhang, Naiwen Li, Jun Hu, and Fan Liao

director: Xiaogang Feng

119 minutes (15) 2007
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Metrodome DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 7/10
reviewed by Jim Steel
Assembly (aka: Ji jie hao) may have an unusual setting, but as far as the content goes, it's another Saving Private Ryan. Very realistic war scenes and superb photography do not hide the fact that, politically, it is a very superficial film. But it is not intended to be anything other than a 'war is hell' story, and it has to be said that an absence of politics is preferable to being a mouthpiece for Chinese CP propaganda. On that level, at least for the first hour, it is superb. When it moves into its postwar atonement phase, however, it becomes decidedly more mawkish. Very Spielbergian...

By 1948 the Chinese Civil War had been going on forever. There had been a short hiatus of eight years while both sides fought the Japanese, but for veterans it must have felt like they were trapped in an Orwellian nightmare of permanent war (coincidently this was the year that saw the writing of 1984). During the Huaihai campaign, Captain Gu Zidi (a powerful Hanyu Zhing) is leading the ninth company against an embedded nationalist force in a wrecked town. After giving the Nationalists a chance to surrender (which is refused), the ninth company assault the position and defeat them. The Nationalists throw down their arms. However the ninth's political officer (Gu's friend) dies, and in a rage Gu insists that the Nationalist surrender be not accepted. His troops refuse to fire on the unarmed prisoners, but the damage has been done. The ninth are in disgrace, and Gu is thrown in jail. When he is released a few days later, he is ordered by General Liu (Jun Hu) to defend an advance position at a mine. It is the company's only hope for redemption. Liu refuses to give them much in the way of fresh equipment, and nothing in the way of recruits. The ninth are down to only 46 men. Eventually, Liu agrees to let him have his fellow prisoner as a replacement political officer. Lu Kuangou (Naiwen Li) is a teacher who has been imprisoned for cowardice.

The ninth have to hold their position until they hear the bugle that signals the retreat. As wave after wave of Nationalist soldiers assault their position, it begins to look a hopeless task. When Gu awakes in hospital afterwards, it appears that he only survived because he was wearing enemy equipment. There is no trace of the rest of the ninth and they are listed as missing in action. Gu joins an artillery section and, when the Korean War comes along, serves with distinction until invalided out. There's a bit of playing to the gallery yank-bashing when an American tank commander (the unusually-accented Phil Jones) runs across Gu's patrol and, after mistaking them for his South Korean allies, leaves pretty sharpish when he realises that one of the Koreans is standing on a landmine that will go off if he moves his foot. There endeth the first hour.

When peace arrives, Gu has little success in convincing the authorities of the heroism of the ninth, and he decides that he must find them for himself and is aided in this by Kuangou's widow, who is also searching for answers. Now we are into the cinema of waving fields of corn and endless military graveyards that play with vanishing points. Stick with it and ignore the saccharine moments. The truth, arriving in flashback, is not a greatly surprising revelation, but it completes the narrative arc in a satisfactory manner.

There's also a making-of documentary on the disc that clocks in at just over an hour, but it doesn't reveal much besides noting the expertise gained from the involvement of Korean filmmakers. Curiously, the film frames the narrative as if it was a true story, but in the documentary the filmmakers refer to the story coming from a novel. Either way, it is highly recommended to all fans of the genre.

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