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The Assembly
     

(left) Zhang Hanyu, and (right) some of the soldiers from The Assembly.
Chinese: 集結號  
Year: 2007
Director: Feng Xiaogang  
Writer: Liu Heng
Cast: Zhang Hanyu, Yuan Wenkang, Tang Yan, Wang Baoqiang, Li Naiwen, Ren Quan, Fu Feng, Hu Jun, Liao Fan, Deng Chao, Tian Hairong
The Skinny: Worthy and involving, The Assembly slightly disappoints because it's safe and unchallenging in its portrait of the Chinese army. Still, director Feng Xiaogang gets points for making this a human rather than a patriotic film, and the battle sequences are quite impressive for Chinese cinema. A solid achievement.
   
Review
by Kozo:

Steven Spielberg needn't look in his rearview mirror, but he may want to sit up and give a nod. Feng Xiaogang's The Assembly has been touted as China's answer to Spielberg's Oscar-winning Saving Private Ryan, with the most obvious comparison being the film's battle sequences, which bring visceral action and immediate drama to various 20th Century conflicts in which the Chinese Army participated. The film opens during the Chinese Civil War in 1948, during a battle between the Communist People's Liberation Army and the Nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) forces, where Captain Gu Zidi (Zhang Hanyu) leads the Ninth Company (of the 139th Regiment, 3rd Battalion) to victory - but at a cost. The group's Political Officer (who handles letter writing and admin work for the company, i.e. he's able to read and write) is killed by artillery fire, and in a rash move, Gu kills his KMT prisoners after they've already surrendered.

His judgement questioned, Gu is censured and temporarily imprisoned, then reassigned to the frontlines by a superior officer (Hu Jun, probably the only actor in the film known to western audiences), where he and the Ninth Company are supposed to defend a mineral mine from the encroaching KMT Army, who approach with all manner of heavy metal, including artillery units and even tanks. The Ninth Company is ill-equipped to defend against the KMT army, and begin to suffer heavy losses, leading to in-fighting over whether they should fulfill their duty or simply retreat. The Company is supposed to retreat when they hear the bugle assembly call, but enemy shelling has impaired Gu's hearing, and he's unable to verify the truth when the soldiers argue over whether or not the assembly call actually occurred. Some claim it did, some claim it didn't, and without confirmation, Gu keeps them on their mission, as their chances for victory inevitably swing from unrealistic optimism to sure-fire decimation. The soldiers trudge on, fighting to the last while the hope of the assembly call all but disappears.

The battle sequences in The Assembly are cinematically riveting, and garner most of the attention during the film's first half. Told with grey-green hued cinematography, copious shaky cam, tons of flying mud and dirt, and mostly implied or innocuous gore, the sequences are technically accomplished in all their kinetic, dirty, helter-skelter glory. Feng Xiaogang makes the scenes exciting if not entirely coherent, and does bring an immediate power and excitement to the screen. What he fails to do, however, is up the emotional content, as the soldiers - save Gu Zidi and new Political Officer Wang Jingcun (Yuan Wenkang) - don't really register beyond basic types, and prove largely faceless and interchangeable. There's drama in their David vs. Goliath struggle, but most of it simply based on loaded situations, e.g. a couple of guys facing obvious death by taking on a tank all by themselves. It's exciting, well-executed stuff, but the characters weren't so defined before their sacrifice that their deaths really mean all that much afterwards. Technically, the battle sequences are a laudable achievement, but on a human level, they're just run-of-the-mill.

That's the first half of the film, however, and though the second half never gets less generic, it does manage to create a stronger connection to its characters. Once the big-budget battle sequences fade, the film moves to the heart of its story: Gu Zidi's post-Civil War years, as he wanders China as a nearly deaf veteran. Gu first enlists in the Korean War, before attempting a post-war life, where he must sometimes prove his identity and rank to bean counters and records keepers who've since lost track that he and the Ninth Company ever existed. This is particularly frustrating for Gu because no record of the Ninth Company means no record of their sacrifice, leading to numerous scenes of Gu Zidi railing at those who've forgotten the nation's soldiers, and the sacrifice they made to ensure freedom, er, the continued power of the State. Suddenly it seems like Assembly will become one of those "war sucks" films that decry war as dehumanizing to the many sons who gave their lives in battle. You know the drill: the boys march off and die, while the government counts the bodies and acts all bureaucratic, reducing human lives to statistics and cannon fodder. It's one of the primary thematic subgenres of war film, and for a while, it seems like Feng Xiaogang may be slowly moving towards such a political message.

But hey, this is a Chinese film produced specifically for Mainland audiences. Which means this: a film cannot be critical of the government or its flag-waving past unless the filmmaker wants to be banned from the industry and the film relegated to some dusty warehouse like the Ark of the Covenant in those Indiana Jones movies. Feng Xiaogang is a smart, capable filmmaker, but he's also a very commercial one, having delivered many films that tickled Mainland audiences to the tune of mucho box office receipts. Feng is not going to risk his film's release on a movie that's critical - even slightly - of the Chinese government. Ergo, the drama becomes very predictable very soon. There's no suspense in what will happen because once the conflict is defined, any educated audience member will know how it pans out. Basically, serving in the People's Army will be portrayed as a decent cause, and the government will eventually take care of its people. Gu Zidi will be honored, his brothers honored, and heroism and righteousness given its absolute, flag-waving due. Now should be the time to ask: where can I enlist?

With the film's narrative drama largely tabled, Assembly falls a bit short, ultimately becoming a respectable and involving, but not truly great war film. Feng elicits appropriate, effective performances from his cast of unknowns, with Zhang Hanyu leading the way as the strong and resolute Gu Zidi. Many of the characters in the second half of the film feel both identifiable and authentic, and Feng refreshingly chooses to make the film largely non-political. Feng may take it easy on the Chinese government, but he also chooses to not indict the Nationalist KMT, the South or North Koreans, or even the Americans - though the latter don't come off looking that great either. In one scene, the US Army happens across an individual who has stepped on a landmine, and basically run away, saying, "Wow, that sucks for you!" The portrayal isn't truly negative, but it's not a sympathetic one, either. It seems that in today's shifting global media market, laughing at the Americans is still the best way to insure universal satisfaction.

In Assembly, war is never really portrayed as a "cause". The human element is the main focus here, and the sacrifices made by soldiers are to be honored because they're people, and not members of one side or the other. Feng Xiaogang's smarts extend beyond his ability to put together competent, international-quality cinema; he knows how to make his films appeal to as wide an audience as possible. In his earlier, more China-centric hits, that audience was more Mainland Chinese, but with The Assembly, he seems to be reaching further. The trade-off is that the emotions are safe, and no message exists that raises Assembly to the Saving Private Ryan level of intense human drama. Assembly is dramatically sound and possesses appropriate emotions, but there's nothing that complex or challenging going on here. As such, Feng Xiaogang likely achieved his goal: he made a solid commercial film that's easy to like and respect. The Assembly affects on a basic, unchallenging level, meaning that it may appeal to nearly anyone, anywhere. The film might have been more powerful had Feng Xiaogang chosen a side, but not getting banned and being able to work on future projects is probably desirable to Feng. Assuming that, it's best that Feng Xiaogang chose no side at all. Besides, now the Taiwanese, Koreans, and Americans might be able to enjoy The Assembly too. Everybody wins. (Kozo, Reviewed at the Hong Kong Asian Film Festival, 2007)

   
Availability:

DVD (Hong Kong)
Region 3 NTSC
Mega Star (HK)
16x9 Anamorphic Widescreen
Mandarin and Cantonese Language Tracks
Dolby Digital 5.1 / DTS 5.1
Removable English Subtitles
Numerous extras
*Also Available on Blu-ray Disc

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