A soldier’s quest for personal honor, and that of his fallen comrades in China’s Civil War, is brought to the bigscreen in a worthy but not consistently gripping way in Mainland Chinese helmer Feng Xiaogang’s big-budgeter “Assembly.” Mix of grit-and-spit battle sequences and peacetime drama works better in sections than as a single, long-limbed film. Beyond Asia, where it goes out in December against the heavy guns of martial-arts blockbuster “Warlords,” “Assembly” will face an uphill struggle conquering any Western viewers.
Pic is already presold throughout most of East and Southeast Asia, except Taiwan, where the story’s subject matter may prove problematic — even though the movie is resolutely about personal heroism rather than political propaganda. Western deals, including the U.S., are still uninked.
Much more emotionally engaging than Feng’s previous big-budget excursion, the production design-heavy costumer “The Banquet,” pic may alienate some auds with a first hour that’s solid, in-your-face warfare before the human story really gets under way. Though this section, whose action was staged by South Korea’s Park Ju-chun, is often technically gripping, few among the main cast emerge as individual characters from beneath their helmets and mud-spattered faces.
Style of shooting in this half, with jittery, handheld, color-desaturated lensing, is new for a Mainland movie but recalls both “Saving Private Ryan” and South Korean big-budgeter “Tae Guk Gi.” Producer of the latter, MK Pictures, provided some specialized crew on the China shoot.
Story kicks off in northeast China in the winter of 1948, during the civil war between the Nationalist KMT and Communist PLA. In a gangbusters first reel, set in a small, ruined town under gray, snow-laden skies, Capt. Gu Zidi (Zhang Hanyu) and his Ninth Company soldiers distinguish themselves in street combat with a KMT unit. But so enraged is Gu at the loss of his political officer that he shoots a KMT soldier in cold blood after the latter and his men have surrendered.
Gu gets a token sentence of a few days’ imprisonment, during which he meets fellow prisoner Wang Jincun (Yuan Wenkang), a political officer who’s awaiting a possible death sentence for cowardice. When old guerrilla buddy Liu Zeshui (well-known thesp Hu Jun) orders Gu to take the Ninth Company on a special mission, Gu asks to take Wang along with him.
After valiant fighting by the ill-equipped, tiny Ninth Company against huge KMT forces — often stunningly staged in grungy, muddy colors — a couple soldiers claim they’ve heard the assembly bugle call and argue for retreat. Gu says he’s heard no such thing, and the Ninth fights to the last man — Gu.
Exactly an hour into the pic, story moves forward two months to when Gu is recovering in a PLA hospital, unable to prove his identity in the Civil War chaos. Three years later, in North Korea, he’s fighting the Americans and South Koreans during another civil war, when he saves the life of Er Dou (newcomer Deng Chao), who has stepped on a mine.
Rest of pic is largely set in 1955, in peacetime China by the Wen River, where a retirement home is being built for army veterans. Now obsessed with recovering his own honor and his comrades’ missing bodies, Gu sets out on a mad personal mission against official bureaucracy, helped by Er Dou and Wang’s young widow, Sun Guiqin (Tang Yan). What he discovers provides a mild twist on earlier events.
Though the personal story starts coming into focus in the latter half of the movie, the various time segments work rather clunkily, dissipating what should be a gradual emotional buildup to Gu’s final redemption. (Pic is based on the true story of Gu, who died in 1987, aged 71.) Still, individual scenes are often quite touching, and Zhang’s powerhouse playing as the aging Gu provides some continuity.
In the latter stages, Deng provides quiet support as the indebted Er Dou, and Tang adds some much-needed softness to a pic that’s almost wholly male-driven drama.
Feng, whose pre-“Banquet” comedies like “Big Shot’s Funeral” established him as China’s most commercially successful director, shows much of his earlier skill at building engaging characters. It’s more the structure of “Assembly” that works against his efforts than any weaknesses in directing the cast.