The slowly modernizing face of one of China’s most conservative genres, the war movie, is strikingly demonstrated by “Night Raid,” a trim, character-driven actioner based on a real-life op against a Japanese airbase in fall 1937. Marbled with unexpected humor, and with a B-movie-like leanness, debut feature by helmer An Lan would make offbeat latenight entertainment at free-thinking fests and even a specialist Asian curio on ancillary.
Following a (well-staged) strafing attack by Nipponese planes on a railroad yard, a raggedy batallion of the (communist) Eighth Route Army, led by grizzled but conflicted Chen Xilian (Wang Yongming), heads through the northern Chinese hills to meet up with the main division. In tow is a feisty female photojourno (He Dandan) from the (nationalist) Central News Agency who (comically) unsettles the troops en route. When the batallion stumbles on a hidden Japanese airfield, Chen, despite being ill-equipped, decides to gamble all on a do-or-die guerrilla assault. Sharply drawn characters, an excellent, nuanced score by Liu Junpeng and a pacey finale with above-average f/x deliver the goods, sans overt political propagandizing. Pic, released in August, is also known as “Night Attack.”