THE EIGHT HUNDRED (2020) review

By far the highest-profile of the Chinese films set to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China (which included Li Shaohong’s Liberation and Oxide Pang’s Towards the River Glorious, both flops), Guan Hu’s The Eight Hundred was initially set to open the 2019 Shanghai Film Festival, followed by a domestic theatrical release in early July 2019. Both were abruptly cancelled, officially for “technical reasons” – the real reason allegedly having more to do with the positive portrayal of the Nationalist army, which in PRC propaganda are normally to be portrayed as a band of traitors to their homeland. It’s not clear what changes were brought to the film to make it palatable to the Communist overlords, but when it finally got a domestic release more than a year later, it heralded the promising recovery of its industry in the Covid-19 aftermath, with a thunderous 450 million dollars (and counting) at the Chinese box-office, not far at all from the lofty expectations surrounding its original 2019 release.

Recounting events already often portrayed in Chinese-speaking cinema, most notably in Ding Shanxi’s Eight Hundred Heroes (1976) (a Taiwanese film, and thus unfettered in its celebration of the Nationalist Army), The Eight Hundred takes place over four days in 1937: with Shanghai falling at the hands of the invading Japanese army, a regiment of the Chinese Resistance Army (joined by ramshackle local troops) is ordered by Chiang Kai Shek to stay behind and defend the imposing Sihang Warehouse as a symbol of the indomitable Chinese spirit, to be leveraged for sympathy at an upcoming international conference in Europe. On the other side of the Suzhou river, civilians watch the battle unfold, unscathed because their part of the city is too cosmopolitan for the Japanese army to attack without global repercussions.

Carried by a towering ensemble cast (with the standouts being Jiang Wu and Wang Qianyuan, the former as a coward and the latter as a hardened survivor, both sides of a same coin), captured in a stunning near-monochrome by cinematographer Cao Yu (who lensed Lu Chuan’s fully monochrome war masterpiece City of Life and Death), with gripping, visceral, intensely immersive battle scenes staged by Glenn Boswell (who’s worked on such classics as The Thin Red Line, Matrix and Mad Max: Fury Road), The Eight Hundred is a stunning achievement that largely avoids the feel of propaganda, simply by dint of portraying war as what it is, hell. But the film’s most striking and innovative aspect is its juxtaposition of the battlefield on one side of the river, and the glitzy Bund on the other, still bustling with life and entertainment. Some onlookers don’t pay much attention to the chaos mere kilometers away, while other cheer on: their good intentions create deep unease, as they seem not much more in fear for their life than the audience in a film theater. Only Rupert Gregson-Williams and Andrew Kaczynski’s score fails to match the power of Guan Hu’s images.

Long Story Short: A masterfully gripping and visceral war epic. ****

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2 Comments

  1. Four stars! I didn’t know your rating could go that far north of 2! ;-) :-P

    Reply

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