The Eight Hundred (八佰, Guan Hu, 2020)

“Enjoy Shanghai. Enjoy Your Life” reads a neon-lit sign in the art deco paradise of Shanghai in the 1930s. Across the river, however, a war is raging. Guan Hu’s The Eight Hundred (八佰, Bābǎi), the first Chinese film to be shot in IMAX and boasting an unprecedented budget of US$80 million, was the last in a series of movies to be ignominiously pulled from a festival slot, the opening night of the Shanghai International Film Festival no less, for “technical reasons”. In this case, most have interpreted the nebulous term as a squeamishness on the part of the censors’ board to the fact that the film celebrates the heroism not of the PLA but of Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist Revolutionary Army who put up the last stand during the fall of Shanghai, securing a warehouse on the opposite side of the river from the British Concession knowing that there was no hope of stopping the Japanese, but hoping that their defiance would inspire foreign powers over to the Chinese side. 

The action opens in October 1937 shortly after the outbreak of the second Sino-Japanese War. Shanghai is falling and the Japanese will soon be on their way towards Chiang’s capital, Nanking. Nevertheless, the Japanese have resolutely avoided encroachment into the foreign concessions for fear of inflaming international relations in ways which might be inexpedient for their current goals. As a diplomat later puts it, war is always a matter of politics. Ordered to hold the line, the last remnants of the NRA are expected to die as an act of political theatre. There is no practical benefit to their sacrifice save the vindication that they went down fighting, their moral righteousness a tool to garner sympathy firstly with the international community who might be persuaded to intervene at an upcoming conference in Brussels (which is finally postponed because of a corruption scandal engulfing the Belgian PM). 

In Guan’s retelling, however, it is a much more domestic audience which becomes the ultimate target. A contrast is repeatedly drawn between behind the lines China, a wasteland of fire and rubble, and the glittering lights of the foreign concession with its billboards for Hollywood movies, famous actresses surveying the scene while the sound of opera both domestic and Western wafts over the river and business carries on as normal in the large casino run by an eccentric short-haired madam dressed in a Western suit. Cynical journalists chase the story from the comparative safety of a balcony above the bridge, chiding the Chinese reporter, Fang (Xin Baiqing), who has also been working as an interpreter for the Japanese, that he acts as if this war is nothing at all to do with him. The heroism of the 800 is the key to unlocking the latent patriotism of those living in the dream of the foreign concession where war happens only across the water, in another world no more real to them than a movie. They stand by the water and they watch, increasingly grateful to the soldiers for their protection until they too remember that they are also Chinese and this war is also their war. Women extend their hands towards those retreating across the bridge while the Peking opera turns its drums to the rhythms of war and the casino madam gives up first a flag and then a large stash of morphine hidden in her safe for probably obvious reasons. 

The flag might be one of several explanations for the censors’ squeamishness in that it is obviously now the flag of Taiwan and reminds us that these men are members of Chiang Kai-shek’s NRA, more often characterised in ideological terms as traitors rather than heroes. They are not however saints in the propaganda movie mould and it is even perhaps suggested that they are not much better than the Japanese, ruthlessly executing their own men as deserters and using prisoners of war as target practice for untrained, nervous recruits (the Japanese meanwhile publicly dismember their prisoners with the intention of intimidating Chinese forces). The youngest of the soldiers is only 13, a farmer’s son pulled off his land with his older brother who was tricked into the war machine by the desire to see the shining city of Shanghai and perhaps travel to England. Some of them try to run, torn between the desire for escape and a responsibility to their fellow men, each eventually fully committed to their forlorn hope determined to hold the warehouse if only to prove that they held the line for as long as it could be held. 

That same diplomat encourages commander Colonel Xie (Du Chun) that what he does here will be remembered, and that his men are the “real Chinese people” in another statement that probably rankled with the censors. Repeated references to legendary general Guan Yu paradoxically link back to the contemporary context as the narrator of a shadow play echoes that the Han restoration rests with the young while an angry soldier rants about planting a flag on Mount Fuji as revenge for everything they’ve suffered, making the case for the resurgent China beholden to no one something echoed by the moving scenes juxtaposing the ruined warehouse with the ultramodern city which now surrounds it. Yet Guan opens with a peaceful image of pastoral serenity which stands in stark contrast to the chaos of war as his numbed camera slowly pans between one scene of carnage and the next. Men blow themselves up, cry out for their mothers, send letters home, and call out their names as they die to prove that they existed while a beautiful white horse runs wild in the vistas of desolation. Unashamedly patriotic despite its slightly subversive context, The Eight Hundred presents war as the meaningless chaos that it is, but also lionises the men who fought it in the mythic quality of their heroism as they alone stood their ground and finally convinced others to do the same.


The Eight Hundred is in UK Cinemas from 16th September courtesy of Cine Asia.

UK trailer (English subtitles)

The Bravest (烈火英雄, Tony Chan, 2019)

The Bravest poster 12019 is an important year for China’s Communist Party. Not only is it the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic, but it’s also the centenary of the May 4th Movement which saw Chinese students protest against increasing foreign influence. To mark the occasion, Bona Film Group is set to produce what it calls the “China’s Pride Trilogy”, or as the less generously minded might see it, a trilogy of propaganda movies of which The Bravest (烈火英雄, Lhuǒ Yīngxióng) is the first. While China’s military has frequently taken centre stage in the nation’s increasingly jingoistic action movies, The Bravest is the first to focus on the heroic efforts of the fire service, which in China is operated by the army.

Inspired by a real life fire which broke out in Dalian, Liaoning Province in July 2010 and adapted from Mongolian author Bao’erji Yuanye’s book “Tears Are the Deepest Water”, The Bravest follows a collection of differing brigades who come together to battle a raging fire which has engulfed a coastal oil refinery. When we first meet our heroes, the Special Squadron, they’re in the middle of rescuing a little girl from a fire in hotpot restaurant. Though the operation is initially successful with the girl rescued and the fire extinguished, the owner has neglected to inform the fire fighting team that the back room is full of propane tanks, which is something he probably should have mentioned. One of the team is killed in the ensuing explosion while captain Liwei (Huang Xiaoming) is knocked out and thereafter removed from active duty while he deals with PTSD related to the incident.

Flashing forward, we’re told that if the wrong quantity of chemicals are added to the oil running through the refinery then it could catch fire, which it eventually does. The problem isn’t just the potential economic effects or even the possibility of a large scale explosion causing widespread infrastructure damage and loss of life, but that there is a possibility that the fire will release cyanide gas which has the potential to kill everything within the surrounding area. In the immediate aftermath of the fire breaking out, the harbour brigade, Special Squadron, and the tinpot rural team Liwei has been demoted to are all summoned to help but, unusually considering this is a propaganda film designed to praise the emergency services, are largely ill-equipped to deal with such a large and potentially hazardous incident.

Nevertheless, they live up to the movie’s name, bravely wading into harm’s way to minimise the damage. Meanwhile, mass panic is quickly overtaking the city as people begin to become aware of the potential danger through their smartphones or messages from someone connected to the refinery which is, after all, the economic centre of the area. Economics are partly what’s on the mind of the refinery’s chief who is often less than truthful with staff at the command centre, deliberately keeping information from them in an effort to control the situation and avoid being the guy who plunged an entire province into poverty. He does however give himself brownie points for sticking around when similar big wig villains in disaster movies usually get on their private jets and leave the emergency services to it. He’s joined by a selection of party officials who also break with cinematic tradition by standing next to the firefighters, a little way back from the frontline but very much still in harm’s way as they attempt to ensure a satisfactory outcome for all. In the hospitals too, doctors and nurses remain at their posts treating the injured rather than tending to their own wellbeing.

The focus is, however, the heroically altruistic actions of the firefighters who disregard their own safety in order to ensure that of others. Thankfully, in the real life incident no one was killed but in Movieland no one is that lucky and The Bravest remains remarkably unafraid to indulge in obvious foreshadowing such as poignant scenes of familial discord and even one pair of firefighters rushing to the scene still dressed in their outfits from getting their wedding pictures taken. Sad salutes and moments of silence are the order of the day while the firefighters divide up the hazardous duties by volunteering those with siblings so parents will be protected should the worst happen. Unashamedly melodramatic, there’s no denying the sheer spectacle of The Bravest’s cleverly crafted fire effects or its mammoth scale, even if it never manages to escape its nakedly propagandistic genesis. 


Currently on limited release in UK/US/Canada/Australia/NZ cinemas.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Not One Less (一个都不能少, Zhang Yimou, 1999)

not one less posterIt’s tough being a kid in rural China. Childhood is perhaps the rarest of commodities, all too often cut short by the concerns of the adult world, but then again sometimes childish innocence can bring forth the real change in which grownups have long stopped believing. Zhang Yimou is no stranger to the struggles of life in China’s remote villages, but in Not One Less (一个都不能少, Yīgè Dōu Bùnéng Shǎo) he crouches a little closer to the ground as one tenacious little girl finds herself thrust into an unexpected position of authority and then cast away on an odyssey to rescue a lost sheep.

The girl, 13-year old Wei Minzhi has been brought over from an adjacent village to substitute for the local teacher whose mother is ill, meaning he needs to take a month off to go back to his own remote village and look after her. The problem is that no-one would agree to spend a month teaching little kids in a rural backwater for almost no money. Wei Minzhi graduated primary school which makes her one of the most educated people around and at least means that she’s a little way ahead of some of the other kids and, to be fair, teaching methods here generally end at copying the lessons from the master book up onto the blackboard so the kids can copy them down and study in their own time. Given the relative poverty of the village, children often drop out of school altogether because their parents need them at home. Teacher Gao has promised Wei 10 extra yuan if the same number of kids are still coming to school when he comes back as there were when he left.

Documenting daily life in the village, the early part of the film strikes a warm and comedic tone to undercut the hardship the villagers face. The Mayor, apparently a slightly dishonest but well meaning sort, is doing his best but the village is so poor that the children turn desks into beds and huddle together to sleep in the school. Chalk is strictly rationed and resources are scarce. Wei takes to her new found authority with schoolmarmish tenacity but struggles to exert her authority over her charges, and especially over one cheeky little boy, Zhang Huike.

When Zhang Huike disappears one day and Wei finds out he’s been sent to the city, she becomes fixated on the idea of going after him to drag him back and make sure she gets her 10 yuan bonus. The quest is a fallacious one – it will coast Wei far more than the 10 yuan bonus to get to the city and back so it’s hardly cost effective, but Wei is a literal sort and doesn’t tend to think things through. Nevertheless, the need to figure out how to get Zhang back does finally get her teaching as she gets the kids to help her do the calculations of how much money she’s going to need and to figure out how to get it.

If life in the village was tough, the city is tougher. When Wei arrives and tries to find Zhang, she winds up at the dorm of a construction site which is peopled exclusively by children who are (presumably) all working here to help their families out of poverty. Zhang, however, got lost on the way to his new job and is currently wandering the city alone, staring enviously at meat buns until someone takes pity on him and hands him one. Luckily he later meets a kind restaurant owner who takes him in off the street and gives him food in return for dishwashing. Wei, meanwhile, is completely at a loss as to how to look for Zhang. She hits on the idea of fliers but doesn’t think to leave contact details beyond the name of her school – after all, everyone in the village knows where the school is so why wouldn’t they in the city. Later someone recommends she try TV only for her to become semi-exploited for a human interest story on rural education in which the rabbit-in-the-headlights Wei can do little more than burst into tears and plead for Zhang’s return.

Wei’s single-mindedness may eventually reap rewards, but it’s impossible to escape the fact that it was motivated out of pure self interest. She wanted her 10 yuan bonus, and she never stopped to think about anyone’s else situation so long as she got it. Thus when scouts arrive from a nearby sports school with an amazing opportunity for one of her pupils, she tries to mess it up just so she’ll get the money. Similarly she’s determined to bring Zhang back even after visiting his home and meeting his bedridden mother who explains the family situation that necessitates sending her 11-year-old son away to work on a construction site. Despite having been warned about the chalk shortage, she allows half of it to get ground into the floor because she’s too busy trying to assert her authority to realise the (accidentally) destructive effects of her own actions. Nevertheless, her bullheadedness does eventually pay off. Asked about his experiences in the city, Zhang Huike remarks that the city is “beautiful and prosperous” before looking sad and admitting that he’ll never forget that he had to beg for food. Cities, it seems, are teeming hubs of wealth and success but they’re also cold, lonely, and so anonymous that small boys like Zhang get lost amid the hustle and bustle of the individualist life.


International trailer (English voice over)