Four days feels like an eternity in “The Eight Hundred,” mainland Chinese writer-director Guan Hu’s monumental, if sometimes unwieldy epic interpretation of the courageous defense of a warehouse by the Chinese Nationalist Army in October 1937. For those with little knowledge of the Sino-Japanese War, the bombardment of facts, action and characters in the 147-minute film can be too much to take in at one go. But the spirit of the mission, like that of “The Alamo,” should be easy for any audience to root for.
Since its mainland China release on Aug. 21, the $80 million mega-production by major studio Huayi Brothers has conquered $165 million at the box office, making it a pandemic-era global theatrical top-grosser. It will go down as a breakthrough not only as Asia’s first film shot entirely with Imax cameras, but also for its audacity to handle a historical chapter sensitive to both sides of the Straits in a relatively neutral and entertaining light. Touted to open the Shanghai Film Festival in June 2019, the film was pulled for “technical reasons” and resurfaced 14 months later with a running time 13 minutes shorter. The film opens in North America on Aug. 28.
Compared by the Chinese media to “Dunkirk” long before its release, the saga does share similar sentiments of survival, grit and triumph in defeat. Guan’s direction may be less radical or propulsive than Nolan’s, but it too plunges audiences into both the intimacy and magnitude of brutal war spectacle while immersing them in a stunningly mounted period canvas.
A director who successfully straddles TV and auteur cinema (his films “Cow” and “Mr. Six” both premiered in Venice), Guan’s eighth feature is unquestionably his most overarching. The central vision that runs through all his works — of survival, fate and the elements — are projected onto a panoramic human crucible. Like the aging gangster in “Mr. Six” or the widow in “Design of Death,” characters in “The Eight Hundred” are constantly forced to make choices and forge their own codes of morality: Officers must decide to obey orders or do the honorable thing, cowards are torn between fleeing or alerting comrades of danger, civilians must choose between bringing aid to the warehouse or staying away from the crossfire.
On Oct. 25, Shanghai fell to the Japanese after nearly three months of staunch resistance. Gen. Chiang Kai Shek ordered some troops to stay behind as rear guard and to show that Chinese won’t surrender in hopes of winning sympathy at the upcoming nine-power conference in Brussels.
So the 542th Regiment from the elite 88th Division of the Chinese Resistance Army (NRA) was sent to hold the fort in Sihang Warehouse (aka China Mint Warehouse), a six-story building co-owned by Shanghai’s four major banks. Joined by less-trained security corps from Hubei, Hunan and Zhejiang, these 411 men were up against the Japanese Third Division, the highest caliber in the Imperial Army. Though their purpose was merely symbolic, the men were expected to die defending the warehouse. They held out for four days.
To their advantage, the warehouse was situated in the Zhabei area, across the British concession (aka the International Settlement), divided by Suzhou Creek but joined by the New Lese Bridge. Despite their superior provisions, the Japanese had to refrain from bombing or deploying heavy artillery in case it misfired into the neutral zone, thus causing diplomatic fallout. The incident made world headlines, boosting national morale and rallying foreign support.
The screenplay by Guan and Ge Rui punctuates each day with a dramatic climax. Day One is the film’s finest hour, as the Japanese launch their first assault with efficient ferocity. Choreographed and edited at breakneck speed, the carnage erupting in and out of the site is headily propulsive, capturing the rookies’ stunned disorientation in a raw sensory manner.
Day Two hinges on how the Japanese, mortified by their initial setback, vow to take down the warehouse in three hours. As the enemy’s offensive escalates, military geeks will have a field day with strenuously detailed strategic formations and authentic looking arrays of WWII artillery, mortar and tankettes. (The film hired Chinese and Japanese military consultants.)
Day Three re-creates the legendary feat of Yang Huimin (Tang Yixin), who wrapped the KMT national flag around herself and swam across the river to deliver it to the regiment. The scene was contrived as the most blatant glorification of KMT leadership in “The 800 Heroes,” a 1976 propaganda film produced by then Taiwan state-owned Central Motion Pictures. Guan adroitly gets around that awkward situation by showing the flag only in blurry long shots and having it shot down by enemy gunfire like a tattered rag.
Day Four begins at a precipice of looming menace, then flashes back to 14 hours prior, to the hand-wringing political and moral decisions that lead up to the sensational finale. Guan used the same ploy to brilliant effect in his WWII spy-comedy “The Chef, the Actor, the Scoundrel,” but here it is largely a vehicle to lecture on the failings of the KMT and the ruthless expediency of the Generalissimo. This ponderous lull is somewhat relieved by the emotional rendering of the corps’ camaraderie and the portent mood of unnatural calm before the finale ends the film with a definite bang.
Aside from such hefty set pieces, there is no shortage of moving scenes, such as when the men stand naked in rows to take their last bath. The film is also infused with some of Guan’s favorite aesthetic elements, such as Peking opera, animal imagery and folk culture like shadow puppets, which give bleak scenarios an uplift of color and poetry.
While audiences experience the urgency of combat from thrilling P.O.V. shots of the soldier-protagonists, they also alternate continuously with those on the other shore. Guan is almost didactically invested in charting the concession residents’ conversion from indifferent spectators to cheering supporters. The image of two worlds separated by a river, one blood-soaked, the other luxuriating in diplomatic impunity is a timely symbol of social divides, but their appearance and function become repetitive, weakening the narrative thrust and agency of more decisive players.
It’s natural that such a colossal work would require an ensemble cast. However, the character roster is so bloated, it’s hard to keep up with their trajectories — and ultimately, to care deeply. As Col. Xie Jinyuan, whose leadership was the driving force of their indomitable resilience, Du Chun displays almost no range in his performance.
The Japanese side is even more under-represented, their psyches and responses barely factoring into the entire conflict. However, it’s refreshing for a Chinese War of Resistance film to portray the Imperial Army as just doing their job, instead of the usual howling sub-human stereotypes.
Using the digital Imax Alexa, DP Cao Yu (who has experience shooting another WWII war film, “City of Love and Death”) deliberately eschews the grainy textures common in the genre for refined, vivid image quality, with nearly as many closeups as sweeping shots. With no expense spared, digital components by five visual effects houses under supervision of Tim Crosbie (“X-Men: Days of Future Past”) are top-flight, while production designer Lin Mu worked with 1:1 modeled sets to re-create the splendor of European concession architecture, contrasted against the drab yet sturdy warehouse. Music composed by Rupert Gregson-Williams and Andrew Kawczynski is standard Hollywood fare, though the choice of Irish ballad “Londonderry Air” (aka “Danny Boy”) as the theme song (sung as a bilingual duet by popstar Na Ying and Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli) ends the film on a elegiac yet serene note.