Billed as “China’s fist non-propaganda war film”, The Assembly is Chinese blockbuster director Feng Xiaogang’s wildly successful entry into the war epic genre. A huge it on its release in China (it became the “must see” theatrical release of the season, for an audience still largely used to watching DVDs at home), Feng’s film delivers broad audience appeal while satisfying film aficionados and genre enthusiasts, all the while balancing the trick requirements of state-controlled filmmaking in the People’s Republic of China.
The film centres on Gu Zidi commander of 9th Company, 139th Battalion of what will become the People’s Liberation Army, during the 1948-49 civil war between the Communists and the Kuomintang (Nationalist) forces for control of China. Entering a seemingly deserted town, Gu’s company walks into a Nationalist ambush. Though they manage to fight off the enemy, their political commissar (the Communist Party representative) is killed, and, lusting for revenge, Gu orders the murder of surrendering POWs. For his war crime, he’s briefly imprisoned by the PLA, where he meets bookish Wang Jincun (Yuan Wenkang), in the lockup for cowardice under battle. Both men are quickly rehabilitated and rejoin the battle. This time, Commander Liu (Hu Jun, the best known actor in the cast) tasks 9th Company to hold a defensive position at an abandoned coal mine. Their mission is to hold off Nationalist forces and not to retreat until the retreat signal (the “Assembly” call of the title) is sounded. Facing vastly superior forces, 9th Company is decimated in two assaults on their position, but Gu and his men hold off the attackers. The central dilemma of the film, did the Assembly sound or not, is the subject of a contentious debate among the men: Gu, deafened by an attack, claims not to have heard it, and eventually the entire company is decimated, leaving him the only survivor. He survives by wearing a Nationalist uniform, and is taken as a KMT POW by the victorious Red Army.
The second half of the film concerns Gu’s insistence, though injured, to serve in the PLA in the Korean War, and his battles with Chinese authorities to have his identity acknowledged and to have the martyrdom and heroism of his comrades acknowledged.
The battle scenes are rightfully the highlight of the film, and Feng, with a special effects team responsible for the Korean blockbuster Tae Guk Gi, creates impressively detailed, grittily violent spectacles that vigorously and powerfully convey smells and sounds of the dirt, blood, and smoke of war. There’s a Saving Private Ryan feel to the war scenes, which aim for violent realism rather than the stiff casts-of-thousands heroism that is usual for Chinese propaganda war epics. Hand held cameras, a beautifully restricted colour scheme (reduced to greys, greens, and blues), impressive pyrotechnical effects, a restrained but vivid evocation of gore, all contribute to the powerful effect of these scenes. When the film shifts in the second half to the aftermath of war and questions of heroism, sacrifice, bureaucratism, and government leadership, Feng treads carefully but solidly on what might be treacherous political ground, taking some measured risks in exposing failures of leadership, but wrapping the entire tale in a reasonably authority-confirming package.
With this film and The Banquet of 2006, China’s local cinema hero Feng shows that he can extend his range and mastery to blockbusters with trans-national appeal, a promising sign both for his career, and for the prospects of Chinese cinema as it searches for space in the global marketplace.