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 Captain (中国机长, Andrew Lau, 2019)

The Captain poster 2Chinese cinema loves the miraculous, but it loves stories of ordinary heroism even more. Inspired by real events which occurred on 14th May 2018, not quite 18 months before the film’s release, The Captain (中国机长, Zhōngguó Jīzhǎng), is a classic story of everything going right after everything goes wrong. Implicitly praising the efficacy of a system which values military precision over individualistic handwringing, Lau’s dramatisation reserves its admiration for those who keep their cool and follow the rules in the midst of extremely difficult circumstances.

Beginning in true disaster movie fashion, Lau opens with a brief yet humanising sequence which sees the otherwise austere pilot Captain Liu (Zhang Hanyu) say goodbye to his little girl, promising he’ll be back in time for her birthday party that very evening. Thereafter, everything is super normal. The pilots and cabin crew arrive at the airport, get to know each other if they haven’t flown together before, and run through their drills. The cabin crew laugh through the “we’re professionally trained and are confident we can ensure your safety” mantra rehearsed in case of emergency hoping they’ll never actually have to say it, but disaster strikes a little way into the flight when the windscreen cracks, eventually shattering and sucking rookie co-pilot Liang Peng (Oho Ou) halfway out.

Of course, the story is already very well known so we can be sure that the plane will land safely with no one (seriously) hurt, but it’s still an incredibly tense time for all. As Liu explains to Liang Peng, everything in the cockpit must be done with the upmost precision. It’s when you get complacent that things will start to go wrong. A former air force pilot, Liu is not the most personable of captains with his permanently furrowed brow and serious demeanour, but he’s exactly the sort of person you need in a crisis, calmly and coolly making rational decisions under intense pressure. While he’s doing his best at the controls, the entirety of the Chinese air aviation authorities are springing into action to try and ensure the plane’s safe landing – airspace is cleared, the military monitor the situation, and the fire and ambulance services are already on standby in the hope that Liu can safely land at Chengdu airport.

Keeping the tension high, Lau resists the temptation to sink into melodrama, more or less abandoning a hinted at subplot about stoical cabin supervisor Nan’s (Quan Yuan) possibly unhappy home life while introducing a fairly random diversion in a group of aircraft enthusiasts furiously tracking the plane’s trajectory online and then heading out to the airport in the hope of witnessing a miracle. Before the potential catastrophe takes hold, the crew have to deal with unpleasant passengers intent on throwing their weight around, nervous flyers, and people travelling with small children, but do their best to provide service with a smile even in the most trying of circumstances. They are frightened too, but have to muster all of their professionalism in order to be strong for the passengers, keeping them calm and preventing them from creating additional problems while the guys in the cockpit try to find a solution that keeps everyone safe.

Released for National Day, The Captain’s brand of propagandistic patriotism is of the more subtle kind, only really rearing its head during the final moments during which awkward captain Liu suddenly starts singing a folksong in praise of the motherland while celebrating their lucky escape on its one year anniversary in the time honoured fashion of a group hot pot. Nevertheless, the point it’s making is in the virtues that Liu states after landing, valuing life and duty. Liu landed the plane because he followed procedure perfectly, kept his head, and made well-informed decisions. A master of understatement, his speech on landing is simply an apology to his passengers that he wasn’t able to take them safely to Lhasa. After waiting for the investigators, he thinks the passengers are hanging round outside the plane because they’re angry and want an explanation, little realising they are just overjoyed to be alive and wish to thank him for saving all their lives. A tense tale of selfless heroism aided by good training and immense professionalism, The Captain is a subtle endorsement of an authoritarian system but also of the importance of keeping cool in a crisis as the best weapon against catastrophe.


The Captain is currently on limited release in UK cinemas courtesy of Cine Asia, and in the US from Well Go USA.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Our Time Will Come (明月幾時有, Ann Hui, 2017)

our time will come posterFor Ann Hui, the personal has always been political, but in the war torn Hong Kong of the mid-1940s, it has never been more true. Our Time Will Come (明月幾時有, Míng Yuè Jǐ Shí Yǒu) was pulled from its opening slot at the Shanghai film festival though it was permitted a screening at a later date. At first glance it might be hard to see what might be objectionable in the story of the resistance movement against the Japanese, but given that this year marks the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover from British colonial rule to mainland China, there is an obvious subtext. Yet, at heart, Hui’s film is one of resilience and longing in which “see you after the victory” becomes a kind of talisman, both prayer and pleasantry, as the weary warriors prepare for a better future they themselves do not expect to see.

In 1942, school teacher “Miss Fong” Lan (Zhou Xun) lives with her mother (Deanie Ip), a landlady who rents out her upstairs room to none other than Lan’s favourite poet, Mao Dun (Guo Tao). Lan also has a boyfriend, Gam-wing (Wallace Huo), who proposes marriage to her and then announces his intention to leave town. Not really interested in marrying someone who is already leaving her, Lan ends things on a slightly sour note but her refusal is more than just practicality – she wants something more out of life than being an absent man’s wife. Mrs. Fong is an expert in finding out things she isn’t supposed to know (a true landlady skill) and so has figured out that her lodgers are looking to move on. Mao Dun is supposed to make contact with notorious rebel Blackie Lau (Eddie Peng) who will guarantee passage out of Hong Kong for himself and his wife. Unfortunately, he is a little late and a Japanese spy turns up just at the wrong time. Luckily, Lau arrives and solves the problem but a sudden curfew means he can’t complete his mission – which is where Lan comes in. Lau entrusts the group of intellectuals to Lan, instructing her to guide them to a typhoon shelter where another contact will meet them.

This first brush with the business of rebellion provides the kind of excitement Lan has been looking for. Impressed with her handling of the mission, Lau returns and offers Lan a permanent place in his movement as part of a new urban cohort. Her life will be dangerous and difficult, but Lan does not need to think about it for very long. Her mother, ever vigilant, frets and worries, reminding her that this kind of work is “best left to men” but Lan is undeterred. Ironically enough, Lan has never felt more free than when resisting Japanese oppression with its nightly crawls accompanied by noisy drumming looking for the area’s vulnerable young girls. Mrs. Fong blows out the candles and moves away from the windows, but Lan can’t help leaning out for a closer look.

Hui keeps the acts of oppression largely off screen – the late night crawls are heard through the Fongs’ windows with Mrs. Fong’s worried but resigned reaction very much in focus. The schools have been closed and rationing is in full force, but most people are just trying to keep their heads down and survive. The local Japanese commander, Yamaguchi (Masatoshi Nagase), is a figure of conflicted nobility who quotes Japanese poetry and has a rather world weary attitude to his difficult position but when he discovers he’s been betrayed by someone he regarded as a friend, the pain is personal, not political.

Yamaguchi tries and fails to generate an easy camaraderie with his colleague, but the atmosphere among the rebels is noticeably warm. Lan becomes a gifted soldier and strategist but she never loses her humanity – embracing wounded comrades and caring for the children who often carry their messages. When Lan discovers that someone close to her has been captured and is being held by the Japanese she enlists the help of Lau who is willing to do everything he can for her, but coming to the conclusion the mission is impossible Lan’s pain is palpable as she wrestles with the correct strategic decision of leaving her friends behind rather than compromise the entire operation. What exists between Lan and Lau is not exactly a “romance”, the times don’t quite permit it, but a deferred connection between two people with deep respect for each other and a knowledge that their mission is long and their lives short.

Hui bookends the film with a black and white framing sequence in which she also features interviewing survivors of the resistance movement including an elderly version of the young boy, Ben, who is still driving a taxi to get by even at his advanced age. Ben is a symbol of hidden everyday heroes from the pharmacists who treated wounded soldiers, and the old ladies who cooked and provided shelter, to the resistance fighters who risked their lives in more overt ways, who then went back to living ordinary lives “after the victory”. The film’s final images seem to imply that Hong Kong’s time has come, that perhaps the eras of being passed, mute, from one master to another may be nearing an end but the time is not yet at hand, all that remains is to resist.


Screened at the BFI London Film Festival 2017.

International trailer (English subtitles/captions)