Feng Xiaogang's Assembly was the opening film at last year's Pusan International Film Festival, and tickets were sold out in record time once they were made available online. Such is the faith (or curiosity) of the new film from the director who brought us movies like World Without Thieves, and martial arts Hamlet The Banquet. When you think of Chinese directors making a movie based out of Chinese history, you can't help but imagine the massive amount of propaganda that get so blatantly infused into the story and especially the dialogue. But here, Feng managed to bring about a movie which goes beyond the usual ra-ra, and shows us that a movie with universal themes can also come out from what is essentially a war movie based upon China's tumultuous era after WWII.
Assembly refers to the call of the bugle to retreat and regroup, and this is the call that Captain Gu Zidi (Zhang Hanyu) and his 47 men of the 9th Company, 3rd Batallion, 139th Regiment, are keenly listening out for, as they go about their mission in ill-equipped fashion, holding fort on a strategic plain. Sent to the frontlines for war-crimes, Captain Gu and his men, while being the best at trench warfare, find themselves severely lacking in essentials - manpower, ammunition and heavy weaponry, as they go up against the marauding forces of the Nationalist army, with their relatively superior armour. However, their mantra is old school - only the bugle will signal their fall behind, and everything else means fulfilling their mission objectives at all costs.
While all might seem lost, this provides the kind of tales of valour that comes out of these battles, something like 300's. Assembly honours the spirit of the unit, of their tales of bravery and unflinching under insurmountable odds. If you're looking for a war movie, then Assembly will not disappoint. For the first hour anyway. Told in three acts, the first act, all 60 minutes of it, is where the action takes place. The war sequences here aren't poetic in the veins of Terence Mallick's The Thin Red Line, but are more aligned with Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan, with its gritty realism, strained colours, and bloody, gory violence.
We're probably, in recent years, in tune with war movies that put us in the shoes of aggressors, and that is to follow an assault team. Very rarely are we put into trenches and be seen to be on the defensive like that of Letters From Iwo Jima, soaking up wave after wave of attacks. And that's where Assembly shines, in having four intense battle sequences, three of which were on the defensive scheme of warfare, and the other, while an assault, does seem more to be on the losing end rather than achieving a clear, decisive victory. If details are what you're after, then you probably can't go wrong with the single bolt weapon, primitive artillery and the sharing of tin helmets. In fact, you'll probably be wondering instead that the PLA at the time was really backward, given the world's military technological advancement in the West/Japan during the 40s.
And given last year's double bill by Clint Eastwood in Flags of our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima, Assembly seems like both movies combined, in providing both an indepth look at the battles fought, as well as taking time off to contemplate more serious issues in dramatic fashion. In the second and last acts which take up the remaining hour, we follow Captain Gu as he tries his darnedest best to get his company recognized for the contribution it made, no matter how minuscule it might seem compared to the helicopter view of achievements. These acts might bore those who came satisfied with the first half, but for those looking into a more intimate drama of one man's fight for his lost brothers, then this portion will likely appeal to you.
Ultimately, Assembly is an ambitious film. It combines drama and action, and in both aspects, doesn't hold back in bringing about the best it probably could. Kudos go to actor Zhang Hanyu who plays Captain Gu, in what can be essentially a one man show, putting focus of his place in history and his solo fight against the system. And after watching this, you'll probably won't hesitate to watch another war movie coming out of China, if they meet the benchmark set by Feng Xiaogang. Recommended!