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Assembly (2007, China)


Director: Xiaogang Feng    Starring: Hanyu Zhang, Chao Deng, Wenkang Yuan

During the Second Sino-Japanese war the Chinese people suspended hostilities in a civil war that had been grinding on since the late 1920s. With the loss of a common foe when the Japanese were defeated in 1945 the Communist Party of China and the Chinese Nationalist Party resumed hostilities with each other escalating into full scale warfare by 1946 before finally being settled by 1950. It was a brutal and bloody war that cost over a million enlisted men their lives and no doubt caused countless civilian casualties. It also seems to have been largely overlooked by nearly everyone when they think about modern history and is certainly severely under represented in cinema. Xiaogang Feng’s Assembly attempts to address this issue.

The film is concerned with the actions of a Communist Captian, Gu Zidi, a man of courage and honour who is tasked with holding a river crossing with only 46 men until such time as the assembly call is sounded at which point his 9th Company are to retreat and regroup with the main body of Communist troops. Outnumbered and outgunned (the Nationalist troops were well equipped with American weapons, the Communists a mish mash of commandeered arms left over from the Second World War and improvised weapons) his unit is ground into the mud. Only Gu Zidi survives. Appalled that his men have been listed as missing in action rather than being given the recognition that their sacrifice demands, he goes to great lengths to prove his account of the battle.

It’s a film of two halves. First, we bear witness to the brutality of the warfare as Gu Zidi leads his men in battle. Dug in near a mine shaft with few weapons and scant supplies of ammunition and facing an overwhelming force of Nationalist troops, the 9th Company are held together by their respect for their leader and their patriotic fervour. Time and again, Gu Zidi inspires them to action in the face of seemingly inevitable defeat.

The battle sequences are excellent, the frenetic action just as good as anything to come out of the West and for some reason very reminiscent of Saving Private Ryan (It’s ok, the similarity between the two films ends there). Great pains have been taken to show the disparity between the US armed Nationalists, with their fancy uniforms, tanks and modern firearms and the Communist forces with their scrounged and scavenged mish mash of equipment partially recovered in the aftermath of the Second World War and partially improvised out of whatever has come to hand. Between this and the difference in numbers the 9th Company are clearly doomed but as the battle unfolds their ingenuity comes to the fore.

The second half of the film is a much more individual affair, as Gu Zidi explores every avenue to have his fallen comrades recognised as the heroes he believes them to be. Here we get to see a man who is inspirational now not because he can stir his men into great acts of valour in the face of terror but because despite being riven with grief and guilt over the fate of his soldiers he refuses to give up his quest to prove their bravery. This proves to be quite touching at times, as he risks everything for the sake of the memory of his men and the reputations of their families.

Thruoghout it all, Assembly steers clear of taking a political side. Instead, it looks more at the evils of war as a general scourge on humanity. The only winner is death, claiming his victims on all sides of a conflict and while it may drive people to commit great acts of heroism and patriotism it will inevitably snuff out all but the most determined of lives. Arguably this could be seen as a cop out (considering its country of origin criticism of the Communist regime might not have gone down too well anyway) but in my opinion it’s a good angle to take, exploring the futility of endless killing rather than the superficial reasons we find for doing it. When all is said and done it is a very respectable war film that has opened my eyes to a period of world history that I knew very little about and for that I am grateful.

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