The unsung war heroes

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 December, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 30 December, 2007, 12:00am

Mainland movie focuses on a soldier who bears witness to the bravery of his men

Feng Xiaogang's new film Assembly is a cross between Steven Spielberg's second world war epic, Saving Private Ryan, and Sparkling Red Star, a mainland animation about the Red Army released earlier this year.

Assembly is based on the Huaihai Campaign in 1948, when Red Army soldiers battled the Kuomintang (KMT) after the two parties joined hands briefly to fight the Japanese.

The story revolves around Captain Gu (brilliantly played by Zhang Hanyu), who is ordered to defend a strategic area with 40 men until he hears the assembly call that signals retreat.

The call never comes as Gu's loyal soldiers are expendable in the eyes of high-ranking military officers.

After holding hundreds of heavily-armed KMT soldiers at bay for four hours, Gu's ill-equipped unit is wiped out.

Up to this point, Assembly is a captivating war movie with perhaps the most realistic battle scenes in Chinese cinema.

The frenzied handheld shots capture the intensity and brutality of modern warfare in which death comes randomly and suddenly. There are no heroes or villains on the battlefield - only those who survive and those who don't.

But the survivors aren't necessarily better off. Guilt-ridden Gu - who later joins the Korean War and is almost blinded by a landmine - is the sole survivor from his Huaihai unit.

Real character development begins in the second half of the movie. For years, Gu has been looking for the remains of his fallen and forgotten comrades in order to restore their honour and ranks.

The 1950s China is a country in the early stages of a painful rebirth. There are no parades to welcome war heroes who, like the peasants, are victims of the times.

Gu - despite showing tremendous bravery during war - is seen by many as just another veteran who clings to the past and is therefore an obstacle to progress.

'They had all been given names by their parents. Why are they now nameless?' asks a tearful Gu in a graveyard for deceased soldiers who have not been identified. This is a particularly emotional scene that speaks volumes about the plight of unsung war heroes.

While Gu's character is too good to be true (old propagandist habits die hard!) and the film doesn't properly explore the post-war lives of veterans, Assembly is a visionary attempt that depicts the realities of conflict. It is a big step forward in terms of style and content for patriotic mainland war films.