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Movie Review: Assembly (2007)

The past year’s lineup of blockbusters from Hollywood has been pretty light on war movies, so here’s one you may not have seen to fill the gap. Produced in China by director Feng Xiaogang, it is Assembly – and it’s a very impressive production.

In many ways, Assembly is a Chinese version of Saving Private Ryan. Many of the cinematic techniques are the same, with realistic first-person camera perspectives and chaotic battle scenes. The story is that of Captain Gu Zidi and his company (strength just 47 men by the end of the opening scene) fighting against Nationalist forces in 1948, at the midst of China’s civil war. Captain Gu joined a guerrilla unit fighting the Japanese in 1939, and has been at war ever since. Through the first half of the film, we watch him desperately try to keep his men alive through a series of defensive holding actions against ever-increasing Nationalist attacks. Eventually they are facing tanks with little more than Molotov cocktails and a single captured mountain gun. With no radio contact, Gu and his men are waiting to hear Assembly, the bugle call telling them to retreat and regroup.

But the call never comes. As we learn at the end of the film, Gu’s unit was sacrificed to hold back the attackers while the rest of the regiment was evacuated. In the final hopeless battle, Gu’s men are all slain. Gu himself is the lone survivor, wounded and overlooked in the carnage. He dons a Nationalist uniform to search for food, and is eventually taken prisoner by his own Communist army. With no way to prove his identity or loyalty, he winds up effectively reenlisting as a private, and we pick up his story in 1953 in Korea, fighting the Americans. He saves the life of his commanding officer here, making a life-long friend who will be essential to the second half of the story.

At this point, the film changes gears. Captain Gu Ziti the battle-hardened commander becomes Gu the lonely and aimless aging veteran, slowly going blind and wracked by survivor’s guilt. The men of his company were never found, and were all declared MIA, their last stand going unrecognized by history and the Peoples’ Army. The battle took place at an old mine, and Gu had ordered the dead and wounded moved inside it through their defense. The mine entrance was destroyed in the final attack, and the whole area has been turned into an industrial coal mining operation by the mid 1950s. Gu’s single-minded purpose becomes finding proof of his men’s valor, to bring them proper recognition. This may sound campy as I have written it, but the actor playing Gu, Zhang Hanyu, puts forward a masterful performance, equal to anything I’ve seen from the best US war films.

Assembly (2007)

Gu’s men between actions, with a Maxim and 8mm Bren at the ready

Of course, this being Forgotten Weapons, I am also going to bring up the arms used. The Chinese civil war, like most civil wars, involved a huge hodge-podge of arms. Domestic Chinese-produced guns, guns bought and imported through the 20s and 30s, guns captured from the Japanese, guns supplied as aid to both sides by the US, UK, and Soviet Russia. Gu’s unit of Communists are armed mostly with Mauser rifles, plus a spattering of other things. Some PPS-43 subguns are seen, as well as a long-barreled Sten. In addition to his rifle, Captain Gu carries a box cannon in shoulder stock holster, although we never see him use it. The unit’s machine guns are a pair of Maxims (although in still frames you can tell they are fabricated props) and 8mm Bren guns. Springfield, Thompsons, Lee-Enfields (“British 77s”), and BARs are also seen. Interestingly, the unit’s sniper has chosen to use a Johnson M1941 – actually a pretty good choice, given his options.

Assembly (2007)

The unit’s sniper, with his M1941 Johnson rifle

With the exception of the prop Maxims (which I actually didn’t notice until I was capturing screenshots for this review), the gun handling was very well done, and a very interesting break from the typical WWII Mausers and Garands.

You can take a look at the trailer to get a feel for the cinematography:

Overall, the plot had some weak points, mostly in the second half. And extra 30 or 60 minutes to flesh out the characters in Gu’s post-war life would have been beneficial, although probably not practical for a mainstream film. Still, I found it both entertaining and compelling, and would definitely recommend it to someone looking for a realistic war movie. Unfortunately, distribution in the US seems to be pretty spotty. You can get the DVD on Amazon, but be careful of which region you are getting – the cheap copies are not Region 1, and will not plan on US and Canadian DVD players. I;m not sure if it’s available on NetFlix, but the whole movie has been uploaded to YouTube, so you can see it there.

Edited to add for Jamezb:

assemblysten

45 comments to Movie Review: Assembly (2007)

  • Earl Liew

    Thanks for the great review, Ian. I seem to recall reading or hearing about “Assembly” a short while back ( it might have been a review on NPR ). There have been many very well-made films from Russia, Eastern Europe, Central Asia, China, Korea, Japan, Latin America, et al. in the last several decades that have been almost entirely overlooked in this country, which is a real pity.

    • Thiel

      Speaking of foreign war films, does anyone know the English title for the Japanese film about Admiral Isokoru Yamamoto?

      • Earl Liew

        I think you are referring to “Rengo Kantai Shirei Chokan : Yamamoto Isoroku – Taiheiyo Senso Nanajunenme no Shinjitsu” or “Isoroku Yamamoto, The Commander-In-Chief Of The Combined Fleet” or “Admiral Yamamoto – The Untold Story Of The Pacific War”.

        This 2011 docu-drama was directed by Izuru Narushima and produced by Shohei Kotaki, and is a far cry from the propaganda-driven, nationalistic version of the same title made in 1968. Instead, this current version more realistically depicts Admiral Yamamoto for what he really was — an ultimately flawed yet caring, sensitive, responsible, principled and misunderstood human being, a scapegoat for the ironically mislaid and narrow-minded beliefs of an erstwhile enemy, and a convenient fall-guy for the clever politicians and players on his own side, who continued in large part to survive and prosper after the war, and eventually become the architects of modern Japan. It is said that Yamamoto, tired and disillusioned with the Government in Tokyo he was obliged to serve, had reached the point of despair whereby he welcomed death as a release, which happened suddenly in the skies over Bougainville in the Solomon Islands on 18th April, 1943 at the hands of the 339th Squadron, 347th Fighter Group, USAAF. A terribly unjust end for an essentially just and decent human being caught up in circumstances far beyond his control.

        • Thiel

          That’s the one. Thanks.

        • Chris Morton

          “A terribly unjust end for an essentially just and decent human being caught up in circumstances far beyond his control.”

          I don’t think so. I imagine that’s EXACTLY the kind of death he would have wanted, barring the opportunity to die in a WINNING sea battle.

          I’ve always wonder what would have happened, if Yamamoto had used the guns of the fleet against the Tokyo mutineers (as he threatened to do) and assumed power as a latter day “shogun”. Japan might well have sat out the war and retained Korea, Taiwan and it’s island possessions.

          Passing on entering the war worked out VERY well for Franco, and I think that Yamamoto was smarter.

          • Earl Liew

            Hi, Chris :

            Good to hear from you, as always. While I largely agree with much of what you say, I have to stand by my comments about Admiral Yamamoto. Of course he wanted to die — assuming he felt he had to die — under circumstances that would have left his good name and legacy intact, as it would be for any self-respecting military leader. What I am getting at are the more subtle under-currents of the politics of the time that drove him to near-despair fighting for a cause that he wanted to believe in but could not trust — a most unenviable position for a man of integrity to be in, and a position that offered no good way out. Of the many examples one could cite, the case of Army General Tadamichi Kuribayashi ( commander of the doomed Iwo Jima garrison ) bears a certain parallel in these terms to Yamamoto’s plight.

            I would recommend reading ( or re-reading, as the case may be ) David Bergamini’s in-depth history “Japan’s Imperial Conspiracy” ( Morrow, 1971 ) to fully appreciate the incredibly complex and multi-faceted machinations of Japanese politics and interest groups that, even under the duress of war, resulted in situations that were almost untenable for conscientious commanders like Yamamoto. It should be noted that many respected historians have, over the years, attempted to cast doubt over Bergamini’s findings, as they should in the cause of real critical thinking. However, he does present strong evidence to support his findings, and it should also be noted that the critics in question were subscribing to a more conventional historical status quo that ideally suited both the United States and its new post-war ally, Japan, in terms of ensuring that the “new order” would be carried forward to the benefit of both countries. This still does not relieve the parties concerned of ultimate responsibility or culpability.

  • Denny

    Thanks of bringing this to attention. As we can sense, this is part of new national self-awareness in China. The recipe is well proven and as we all know it came from ‘good & young’ (in relative terms), United States. It just works, so why not to recycle it.

    As far as motivation of soldiers and commanders to fight on ether side regardless is just short of amazing. Yes, that’s the way it was and it will be. Nobody has right to clam the absolute truth.

    Finally, weaponry used in battles is well presented and I believe the cast director had good clue as to what was at hand in China those days. Actually, I would expect that there should be extensive exhibits available to public seeing there.

  • Jamezb

    Thanks so much, man! I know what I’m watching tonight!
    (You got a screen shot of that “long barreled STEN” handy?)

  • Chris Brosnahan

    It’s not available on Netflix…YET …(neither is Lone Survivor, Alatriste nor 10 Rillington Place – but I have them on hold for when they become available…

    Broz…Thanx for the tip, Ian!!!

    • Stewart

      Thank you for the other titles! Lone Survivor and Alatriste1 I can leave 10 Rillington Place for the birds. I’ve seen more than my fair share of gore and horror! But Alatristel sounds great! Why didn’t I get to see this at the movies? Anyone know?

  • jim in houston

    Thanks for a great review! That sounds like a fun flick, especially since I am a nut for movies (and books) about 20th century China. As a Navy vet, my all-time favorite movie is Steve McQueen’s “The Sand Pebbles.” Give me a pair of bell-bottom jeans, a Dixie Cup hat and a Browning Automatic Rifle and I am good to go. For novels… he is long dead and I think out of print but Stephen Becker’s Asian novels (“The Last Mandarin,” “The Chinese Bandit” and “The Blue-Eyed Shan”) are just a hoot. The East is east and the West is west and the thirty-caliber has met in the middle…

    • Turk

      Nice, I thought I was the last Stephen Becker fan left!!!

    • Chris Morton

      If you liked the Sand Pebbles (which has been on Encore several times lately), read the novel, which fleshes out a lot of the story.

      I also am a big fan of Stephen Becker, especially The Chinese Bandit.

      I’m endlessly fascinated with 19th and early 20th century Chinese history, especially the warlord era. Osprey has a very good bock on the subject with some good pictures.

  • Ian H

    Argh! Shaky cam!

    Still, an interesting film, I’ll share it with my friends.

  • K!P

    looks like an interesting movie. added to the mental watch list.

    on a totally unrelated note: some off you might like to check this out http://www.kongregate.com/games/vklimov/gun-disassembly
    You get to disassemble different weapons in 3D, and fire them in game with different cutaways and xray modes on. You need XP to unlock different guns, but there is a quiz that should not be to hard for most readers here.(you have to register on the site tho.) Broad spectrum of guns.

    I’m not sure how accurate the models are, but they seem rather detailed to me.

    Not affiliated with the site, or game. Just found it a neat way to get to fondle some guns i will never get near to.

    (@Ian: not my intention to hijack this tread, just wanted to share, if its not appropriate, feel free to delete the comment.)

  • Wanderer

    Interesting to see you review this film now; I actually just watched it a few weeks ago. There’s a been a slew of Chinese films covering this turbulent period of their history coming out in recent years, including two about the Rape of Nanking (The Flowers of War and The City of Life and Death, the former of which even stars Christian Bale) and others such as Death and Glory in Changde and Cold Steel (which is a bit more in the vein of a goofy Hollywood action movie, but still highly entertaining). If you enjoyed Assembly I recommend you check out some of the aforementioned films if you ever have the opportunity.

    • David Carlson

      Having been subjected to both the historical literature about the Rape of Nanking, and the Chinese propaganda about the atrocities, I almost did not watch _The City of Life and Death_. Rest assured, it is a superb film. I highly recommend it.

      Thanks, Ian, for recommending _Assembly_, although I’m about a half hour in [without subtitles!] and for the life of me I cannot tell the Chi-coms apart from the Chi-nats! There just had to be some large-scale “blue on blue” casualties….

      As for Korean Korean War films, I think that _Frontline_ is about tops. There is supposed to be a forthcoming Russian Stalingrad film due out in March, which should be good… Or at least one hopes. Certainly the fallen of Stalingrad deserve a really, really good film.

  • Netflix has the movie listed but not yet available. Interestingly enough, they also have the Bonus Disk listed, which is the first time I’ve seen Netflix do that (and I’ve been using Netflix for over ten years ). Usually Netflix has the rental version of the movie and to get the bonus material you need to buy the DVD.

  • John D.

    Didn’t the ChiComs make some STEN copies in 7.62x25mm? I seem to remember some with long barrels like this one turning up in Vietnam. The magazine on this long barreled STEN looks too large to be for 9x19mm, judging by the diameter of the receiver.

  • Ian, thanks for the review of Assembly.

    You might also try the Korean made WWII, Japan vs Russia, Siberian prison camp, and the Normandy D landing, movie known as “MY WAY.”
    It is based on true characters, a rival between a Korean and a Japanese and leads them into war on many fronts!

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/My_Way_%282011_film%29
    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1606384/
    http://asianwiki.com/My_Way_%28Korean_Movie%29
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zNds2kcUXUk
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m-TXKdxfjko
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=axA0sbsUVrI

    • Earl Liew

      Hi, Pat :

      I happen to have a copy of “My Way”, and it is a terrific and incredibly poignant story where life precedes art. Hard to watch ( like so many really great movies with true humanity and depth ) without many a lump coming to one’s throat. The fact that it has its basis in a real-life story adds to the sense of things both lost and gained, too. Thanks for bringing it up.

      I meant to ask, how did your move from Tampa, FL to Arizona go? I hope it worked out well for you and your family, and that things are beginning to settle down nicely :).

  • Earl Liew

    I would also recommend “My Way”, “71-Into The Fire” and “The Front Line” for anyone interested in this genre of foreign films. All three are excellent South Korean productions, and the first two are based on actual real-life incidents. They are available on Amazon for varying prices.

    • David Carlson

      “71 Into the Fire” was all right. Southern students defending a school from the KPA early in the Korean War in a sort of “Alamo” or “Thermoplae” style do and die struggle on what became the Pusan perimeter.

      The Front Line is absolutely at the top of my list. Really a good Korean Korean War film.

  • Bill McReynolds

    Sten magazines are long enough for the 7.62×25, if the reinforcing rib in the rear is removed. I have seen pictures of a magazine so modified.

    That is the story I was told, anyway. The back of the magazine is open, which doesn’t seem like a good idea.

    Excellent movie, I had to stay up late to watch it, but it was worth it.

    I wonder what the story behind that Johnson is?

    • Assuming the Johnson actually did end up there, I expect it would have been shipped initially to the Dutch East Indies, then captured by the Japanese, taken into China by a Japanese soldier, and then captured by the Chinese.

      • Thiel

        I don’t think the Johnson ever got to the DEI.
        Could have been lost by one of the ParaMarine batallions

      • Chris Morton

        A more likely gun would have been the ZH29, some of which were purchased by the KMT.

        Of course pretty much ANYTHING imaginable ended up in Chinese arms rooms from the 19th century until after the break with the Soviet Union, including if I remember correctly, Hotchkiss and Lee bolt actions.

  • Cyrus

    Since we’re throwing movie titles, I submit Rukajärven tie, or Ambush.
    Is about the Continuation War and the weapons are as one would expect. The story is superb.

    • David Carlson

      Bicycle troops… Probably one of the only film portrayals… Certainly that I’m aware of. The Finn cyclists would use skis in the winter or course.

      Question: I know the Czechs sold lots and lots of ZB LMGs in China… What’s the difference between the 8mm ZB30 and the 8mm Bren?

    • Earl Liew

      That’s one I haven’t heard too much about — thanks for the info!

  • Jamezb

    Thank you for adding that last photo for me!!!

  • Doby Pilgrim

    Thanks for the review. I just watched the movie and would not have found it without you. It was moving, and even though I wanted to root for the Kuomintang, it was hard to do while watching this one. More jarring than the Maxims was the American tank commander who looked like a hippy with his goat tee and silly command of, “Forward ahead!” He obviously just repeated the words in the script as written by a Chinese author.

    As for the weapons:

    One rarely sees a Johnson in even an American movie. My son enjoyed seeing the Mausers, since we have many of them around the house, and he particularly liked seeing the PP43 in heavy use, since he just got the civilian version last week. I do wonder why the principal character called that Enfield No. 4 Mark one a Model 77 though…

    At any rate, thanks. An extremely good war movie. Not such a good Veteran’s movie in the last quarter though.

  • Chris Morton

    “I do wonder why the principal character called that Enfield No. 4 Mark one a Model 77 though…”

    That might actually have been what the PLA (or the KMT) called it. The Germans used TONS of captured or post surrender manufactured weapons, and gave just about all of them German model numbers. This included every thing from Danish Krags to the M-1 Carbine.

  • Dang, this is the sort of movie I usually find and review. Good on yer Ian! (Although next in the hopper for my Saturday Matinee is Lone Survivor, which I saw with Kid last weekend. It was better than I expected… better than that, actually. It does get Hollywood in places).

    I second the Korean films My Way and The Front Line, although the CGI in both is dreadful, especially the aircraft. (Then again, the era before CGI had the Germans in Cross of Iron being bombed by F4U Corsairs, so maybe bad CGI isn’t all that dreadful). Let me also add 1911, starring martial arts jock Jackie Chan in a serious role as a Kuomintang general in the 1911 revolution of Sun Yat-Sen. Long and complicated film with some good battle scenes, including Jackie and the guys cooling an overheated Maxim with, uh, natural fluids. And if we’re going to extend to the European unpleasantness, the Finnish epic Talvisota (“Winter War”) is great. You can find these and many more reviewed on my site.

    Thanks to you guys I have Assembly and two others (71 into the Fire and Rukajärven tie to catch up on. All y’all rock.

    Don’t forget to check your local library if you are interested in a foreign film. Many have DVDs for loan, and some have inter-library loan compacts that can get you off-the-wall stuff.

    I needed this. Today started with a suicide in a friend’s family and I’m just looking at a cable about a guy in my regiment who died in Afghanistan. He only graduated the course in ’12 — this was his first deployment.

    • Earl Liew

      I’m awfully sorry to hear about these events, Kevin — one just never knows what fate will deal to us at times. I’ve experienced similar events, and all I can say is that it’s so b****y difficult, except that there are still a lot of us who can understand, so you have some company. Take care and keep talking and sharing.

  • Ouch – sorry to hear about the bad news, Kevin!

  • Earl Liew

    I watched “Assembly” again at the behest of the reviews on this site, and was greatly moved. To me, at least, it combined many basic elements from “All Quiet On The Western Front”, “Blackhawk Down”, “Saving Private Ryan”, “Letters From Iwo Jima” and “Farewell To The King” ( the original book, not the movie that let the greatness of the novel down so much ) in a saga that tries to underscore the humanity of that whole terrible period in history while still not violating modern China’s governmental rules on what might be acceptable or not.

    On a more mundane but more technical note, I noticed that the “Nationalist” tanks, especially during the first one-third of the film, were set up to resemble M-26 Pershings with the occasional M-4A3E8 “Easy Eight” Sherman in the background. Obviously, there were no real M-26′s available to the producers, so they had to do the best they could with studio props — mostly what appear to be light tank or commercial tracked vehicle chassis overlaid with a faux M-26 hull and turret. The result is reasonably authentic, except for the rather undersized “M-26′s” being depicted, and the obviously incorrect chassis and hull details ( drive sprockets, bogie wheels, idle tensioners, etc. ). Also, nearly all M-26′s and M-4′s had .50-cal. Browning M2HB HMG’s on a pintle mount at the commander’s cupola ; the versions depicted in the movie had Browning M1919A4 .30-cal. MMG’s.

    Nitpicking, I know, and I’m sure the producers did the best with what they had — but the most important factor of the story, the emphasis on the humanity and the message it sends, is still loud and clear.

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