The Eight Hundred forms an example of the kind of mega-blockbuster the Chinese film industry was investing in before Covid came to town: a lavish, IMAX-scaled scrap around premium-grade production design, bolstered by overseas expertise (the VFX were subcontracted; Rupert Gregson-Williams chipped in a stirring theme) and bound for international distribution, its fervently nationalistic undertones intact. Its subject is an episode of the Second Sino-Japanese War, a conflict that previously gave rise to Lu Chuan's tough but illuminating City of Life and Death, on the Rape of Nanking. This multiplex variant has its grimmer moments, but perhaps inevitably skews towards a celebration of heroic resistance; to Western eyes, it'll likely play like this conflict's own Zulu. In late 1937, a ragtag bunch of retreating Chinese soldiers, left exposed by their allies, holed up in the Sihang warehouse, in effect becoming the last men (and one woman) standing between the advancing Japanese and Shanghai. The latter location is represented by one of the most remarkable sets in recent film or television: a neon-fronted dockside, overrun with extras, which makes the pricey Atlantic City mock-up of HBO's Boardwalk Empire look like Camberwick Green. For the next two-and-a-half hours, we're put in much the same position as the mixed-bag of observers on that dockside, set to goggling as the siege intensifies. The soldiers of the title didn't just save the Chinese nation, the film proposes; for a few dark days at the back of the troubled Thirties, they also put on the best damn floorshow in town.
That it dazzles - that the film stands among us as by far the most effective offering from this new wave of commercial Chinese cinema - is down to the fact that it's simultaneously spectacular and simple. A helicopter shot early on locates two troopers on the warehouse's roof, gazing out at the lights of Shanghai, with its opera singers on balconies, and then turning to face the growing, Japanese-occupied darkness behind them ("that way lies hell"). From there on out, The Eight Hundred adheres firmly to both that cosmography and proven B-movie formula. Every few scenes, this concrete fortress comes under attack - by air, by river, by sneaky tunnels - from imperialist pig-dogs, our heroes send 'em packing, and those on the docks coo, gasp and let off fireworks, as we probably would, too, if the Odeon chain allowed its audience to carry in fireworks. This back-and-forth has been organised into classical three-act shape, with the Chinese troops incurring bruising, wounding losses amid a mid-movie dust-up before rallying to raise a flag that becomes ever more significant in the grand scheme of things. And it's unabashedly bloody in its depiction of battle, filling the wide frame with crucifixions and hangings, flamethrower torchings and semi-regular headshots. No-one's looking away from what war as a lived experience might actually mean. The props team have come through with a joblot of charred corpses, and in some way those still-intact casualties were the lucky ones; a crucial part of the Sihang defence, it turns out, involved soldiers strapping themselves with explosives and leaping like lemmings out of the warehouse's windows onto the Japanese lurking below. The theory that Hollywood has toned down its blockbusters to PG-13 levels purely to appease notionally squeamish Chinese audiences starts to seem a little wobbly in these circumstances; see also the surprising male nudity of the final reel.
Given the region's politics, and the period being depicted, perhaps it's no surprise that this resistance should be portrayed as a collective effort; there's little in the characterisation to distinguish, say, Colonel Xie from Commander Yang. What the movie is good at, though, is sketching brisk pen portraits of men in war, like the flabby veteran found hiding under gunny sacks and given the nickname "Pussy" to defy, or the Lennonesque longhair who can't bring himself to shoot prisoners and has to have the peacenik drilled out of him. The most insistent trope is that there's nothing worse in wartime than a deserter, someone who doesn't want to join in the fun. Everyone is expected (and generally comes) to do their bit: the supercool sharpshooter exposed as a virgin in civilian life holds a cigarette to the lips of a comrade who's had his fingers shot off. There are issues that will need resolving if these movies are to achieve full world domination. The English-language players - representing Shanghai's European and American interests - are broadly as indifferent as those who've shown up in Bollywood films over the decades. (Choice line reading, as a Japanese flare exposes the position of Chinese troops: "It looks like something bad's going to happen.") And some of it really is too simple, like the recurring image of a galloping white horse, here to represent - please excuse me while I bury my tongue so deeply in cheek it's in danger of never returning - the boundless freedoms Chinese audiences enjoy in 2021. Yet the film gallops on, too, as relentless and impressive as the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony, a parallel only firmed up when Shanghai rolls out the big drums amid the finale. It does feel more marshalled than directed, but Hu Guan finds time in all the carnage to linger on a vast Coca-Cola mural handily placed outside the warehouse, both product placement and sign of things to come, and to stage some eve-of-battle puppetry that gestures towards the stories we tell ourselves as nations and citizens. Where City of Life and Death unequivocally set out the case that war is hell, what The Eight Hundred finds in that warehouse is a thousand square feet of wiggle room, and a counterargument to arm itself with: that war can also be a hell of a spectacle.
The Eight Hundred is currently streaming as part of the online Chinese Cinema Season, and available on DVD through Cine Asia.