- The Eight Hundred
- Directed by Guan Hu
- Written by Guan Hu, Ge Rui and Kun Hu, and Dongbin Huang
- Starring Oho Ou, Du Chun and Huang Zhizhong
- Classification N/A; 147 minutes
The new Chinese war epic The Eight Hundred arrives in Canadian theatres this weekend with a background far more intriguing, and complicated, than its on-screen content.
The briefest of summaries: In the works for roughly a decade, Guang Hu’s expensive drama about Japan’s 1937 invasion of Shanghai was supposed to premiere at last year’s Shanghai International Film Festival ahead of its summer 2019 Chinese release, back when film festivals were wondrous, physical events and people went to the cinemas without a care in the world. Just a day before its festival screening, though, the film was pulled from release, with reports that the movie ran afoul of Communist Party officials, even though it had previously been given the thumbs-up from China’s censors. The exact reason has never been articulated, though there has been much commentary in film-fest circles that Hu’s film was too admiring of the Communists’ rival Kuomintang Party and their role in fighting off the Imperial Japanese Army.
Flash forward to August 2020, and the film – reportedly 13 minutes shorter than the 2019 version – is now the darling of the pandemic-era Chinese box office, earning US$75.7-million during its opening weekend in the country. Suddenly, a film that was once anathema in its home country is being touted as a success story by both the domestic and international film industries – proof positive that audiences are ready to head back to the theatre if there is something epic and unmissable on offer.
Yet while the scale of Hu’s production is indeed impressive in its giganticness, and likely plays excellently on the IMAX screens for which it is intended (I had to settle for watching it on my television), The Eight Hundred falls a few hundred yards short of war-movie greatness.
Surprisingly, it is not the film’s naked patriotism that irks (although there is plenty of that – opening title cards inform us that “heroes and martyrs emerged from the War of Resistance against Japan. ... Together with many unsung heroes, their spirit is a monument for future generations”). Hu’s fixation on bloodied flag-waving is not so different from the unironic visions of countless contemporary American filmmakers (in a different world, this might be a Michael Bay production). Instead, it is the director’s prioritizing of spectacle over character, lazy exposition over narrative ambition, that ensures The Eight Hundred finishes at a cinematic stalemate.
Focusing on a symbolic last stand between China’s National Revolutionary Army and the invading Japanese, the film takes place mostly in Shanghai’s Sihang Warehouse, where the soldiers of the NRA’s 88th Division put on a days-long display of courage under fire. How, exactly, do we know this effort marks a symbolic last stand moment in the war? Because one colonel early on yells to his troops, “The Sihang Warehouse is our last stand!” and then later: “The total of Shanghai’s troops are here ... We need to be prepared to die, or hang onto an ignoble existence!”
With that out of the way, Hu proceeds to execute some remarkable, and remarkably gory, set-pieces, all underlining in bold the valour of the farmers, labourers and boys who saved the nation from the cruel and faceless Japanese. There is enough shooting, stabbing and explosives-launching for two or three movies, yet Hu manages to keep the action grounded and comprehensible. What isn’t so clear is who these fighting, then dying, men are. Few characters stick around long enough to make an impression, and fewer still are given any emotional colour before being blown to bits.
Instead, Hu appears more interested in counterbalancing the warehouse action with the drama across the Suzhou Creek, where Shanghai’s ritzy and largely untouched-by-war British and American enclaves watched the battle unfold. But here, too, Hu finds a compelling thread – war as voyeurism, a theme which indicts the audience of The Eight Hundred as much as Shanghai’s own spectator-citizenry – only for the director to lightly futz with it. There are as many interesting threads in The Eight Hundred as there are missed opportunities.
But at least those who like blunt metaphors with their war movies will get a kick out of Hu's most blatant device: a majestic white horse that the NRA lets gallop through the warehouse as if rubber-stamped with the words "hope." I'll let you guess as to whether it rides off safely into the sunset or not.
The Eight Hundred opens in select theatres across Canada on Aug. 28.
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