Film Review: The Eight Hundred
China's Epic War Film Explodes Off the Screen
By J. Don Birnam
August 27, 2020
As the Japanese army encircles and batters them, a group of resolute, patriotic soldiers succeed against all odds in raising and keeping their flag standing, creating a moment of nationalistic pride for generations to come. That scene - familiar to most Western audiences through films like Flags of Our Fathers - is actually plucked from a movie, The Eight Hundred, produced not by the United States nor based on a story familiar to all Americans, but by another film powerhouse (China), from their own library of war heroism. Just as that frame captures a historical event, it and the film itself capture a moment of cinematic history, too. With the thrilling The Eight Hundred, China has loudly announced it, too, can play the blockbuster game.
There are a lot of superlatives one can adorn The Eight Hundred with, and it seems fitting to do so before diving into the substance of the film. For one, the film tallied the highest opening weekend box office for 2020, opening to approximately $116 million in China ten days ago. It was also the first Chinese film to be shot exclusively on IMAX. And, with its impending release into United States theaters this weekend amidst a dearth of offerings due to COVID, becomes one of few films from that country to make a serious play at significant, cultural crossover. Whether it will succeed is anyone's guess, but if you like spectacle heroics, war, action, explosions, and even an inspirational message, you will not be disappointed.
The Eight Hundred, by renowned Chinese director Guan Hu, tells the improbable story of 400 Chinese soldiers defending a single warehouse in Eastern Shanghai in 1937 against an onslaught by the Japanese Imperial Army. The Sihang Warehouse, as it is known today, sat on the right bank of Yangtze estuary that bisects the important Chinese Megalopolis. On the one hand are demolished, war-ravaged streets and neighborhoods. On the left, a still bustling metropolis continues to thrive, thanks to a "safe zone" established by Western forces, essentially in exchange for letting the Japanese pillage China in the 1930s.
One struggles not to type in "World War II" when writing about the Japanese atrocities in the 1930s. History is written by the victors and the official beginning of World War II in world history is 1939, when the Nazis invaded Poland. (Worse, some Americans may even confuse the start date as December 7, 1941.) But World War II exploded, in substance if not name, for many East Asians since at least 1931, when Japan invaded Manchuria in a desperate land grab fueled by its own Great Depression and cast as geopolitical "safe zone" that Western powers turned away from.
Fast forward to 1937, and China, pummeled now for years by the Imperial Army, is on the verge of collapse. Only a few regiments, and the 400 or so brave (and sometimes, not so brave) soldiers led by Lt. Colonel Xie Jinyuan (played by Du Chun), are all that is left between Japan and the total disappearance of the once great imperial power. Save for a few introductory titles and epilogues, it is this multi-month siege with which The Eight Hundred occupies itself.
For Western audiences, the film may seem uninviting or inaccessible. It has subtitles, and features a conflict between two nations far from our own. But The Eight Hundred is in many ways, perhaps purposefully, a quite conventional, US-inspired war film. Most obviously, the flag-raising scene provides a clear allusion to that moment seared into our collective consciousness. But Director Hu is well versed in war action sequences more generally. Noble sacrifices, close escapes, and exploding head kill shot moments all make their dutiful appearance. This is not a slight - on the contrary, his camera work, aided by the work of Chinese cinematographer Cao Yu, blends well with a fast-paced script, seamless acting, and a pounding soundtrack to produce a formidably exciting and gripping product.
And it is not just in following the Hollywood formula that The Eight Hundred loudly conveys its mission of crossing the cultural barriers. The film, though produced by Alibaba and other Chinese conglomerates, almost takes on the tones of state-dictated propaganda. You can almost see party officials weaving lines into the script about national heroics, about the pro-capitalism and pro-communism forces in 1937 that benefited only the invaders. Is that any different, though, than all the messages of exceptionalism plastered all over Hollywood war epics?
The most surprising thing, then, about The Eight Hundred, is that it can be so novel while being so conventional, so original while being so familiar, so grandiose and ambitious while not taking any tremendous risks. Perhaps there is something inherently appealing about this type of cruel sacrifice, about the tragedy of forcing men to turn against each other under the guise of cutting down on deserters, of people losing life and limb in sacrifice of some ideal that few are actually wholly devoted to and even fewer necessarily understand. Perhaps it is the sadness of such spectacle, its senselessness, that somehow enthralls us. Whatever it is, The Eight Hundred yanks those conflicting emotions out of you, even if the heroes are from a distant land.
Indeed, it is when Hu and his obviously talented crew try for riskier touches that The Eight Hundred stumbles across the field. A white horse reappears as a motif - first caged, then wounded, but ultimately triumphant - though it is never quite clear what it represents or why it symbolizes what you suspect. Although these devices are certainly common in Chinese cinema, those same rhetorical flourishes seem contrived and even cliched, as if the filmmaker is not fully convinced of the mass appeal of his mass appeal story, at least to the Western critic.
As it turns out, Hu did not need to resort to symbolism to make his film memorable. The story itself contains a built-in element that delivers this in droves: the fact that the screen is split (essentially) for most of the two plus runtime, into the war-torn east and the morbidly curious but ultimately peaceful west is more than sufficient. Not only is this reality startling and even disturbing as it repeatedly plays out - as Western Shanghai inhabitants for the most part turn back their own countrymen for fear of Japanese reprisal, and as Western observers document but not intervene - it is a much subtler symbolic message of what was happening and continued to happen in the world then. The West, in part responsible, simply danced on as the East suffered. China had to fend for itself - no wonder they did not become the best of our friends.
The other, less interesting type of sideshows, though, are ultimately a matter of a director's personal touch, and they are admittedly quite few and far between in the otherwise tight The Eight Hundred. It is too bad that most of us will not get to enjoy the film as it was meant to be seen: in a screen as wide as the film's ambitions. We will be missing out on an expertly-crafted and at times mesmerizing cinematic moment.