This is way overdue. I actually watched Feng Xiaogang/冯小刚's new film Assembly/《集结号》for the first time at least a week ago, and the second time just after we got back from the village on, ummm, Tuesday? whenever...
First up: Excellent film. Well worth it.
Still, I have to say that the first time through it seemed rather long. It was good, but seemed to be taking some time. Actually, I think it was because, just as the main character, Gu Zidi, said he had died 100 times already, the film had about 100 endings. But Feng seemed to be as obssessed as Gu Zidi with bringing it all to a final closure, and so the film continued. Second time through I didn't get that feeling, though.
There are also two questions about this Gu Zidi that are never resolved: How did he survive the battle of the Wenhe River? And how the hell did he survive the landmine in Korea?
Well, the first one is kinda halfway resolved. At least, we do finally get an explanation for how he showed up in a Communist hospital in the Nationalist uniform of a Private Wang trying to persuade people that he was Captain Gu of a Communist unit that had been wiped out. Still doesn't explain how he survived the battle, though. And surely, in Dongbei in mid-winter, being knocked unconscious outdoors in a battle would result in a pretty swift death from hypothermia?
But the landmine: Really, how? Somehow he manages to escape with only a little bit of shrapnel in his forehead that is causing him to slowly lose his eyesight.
And one element that was slightly jarring, but I think deliberately, and effectively, so, was that even though it is based on the novel 《官司》(English title?) by Yang Jinyuan/杨金远, it is presented as a true story: At a couple of key points in the film, and then at the end, we get those little pop-up messages explaining this or that part of the past or future or an elided intervening period. The message at the end explains Gu Zidi's origin and death and that the bodies of his men were eventually found in a collapsed mineshaft, for example. This has me wondering about the origin of the novel: Is it based on a true story, or is it pure fiction, or somewhere in between?
I was surprised at how short the battle sequences were. Actually, most of the film takes place after Liberation, and most of that after the Korean War, when Gu Zidi finds himself demobbed, meets the wife of one of his men, and begins his ever-so-slightly obssessive search for proper recognition of his unit's sacrifice- which becomes in part a search for the bodies of his men.
But the battle sequences were masterfully done. Feng out-Private Ryaned Spielberg by a long shot. This much I almost expected from what I'd seen on TV in the build-up to the release of Assembly, but it was stunning to see the finished product. Brilliant work. And Feng certainly didn't slack off for the rest of the film, either.
The acting and characterisation were excellent, too. This isn't just some silly war film. Right from the opening scene you feel you're watching real people, real members of a real military unit who've developed intense bonds living and fighting through a war together. And Zhang Hanyu/张函予 does an excellent job of following Gu Zidi right through the POW hospital, re-entry into the PLA, Korea, then his demobbing and quest.
I was surprised, though, to see how small a role Wang Baoqiang/王宝强 played considering how popular he's been since A World Without Thieves/《天下无贼》. Still, Gu Zidi is the only one to survive the Wenhe battle and that is really only the introduction to the film.Anyway, great film. Watch it.