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.
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.
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: