Wednesday, 12 January 2011


Hello all I thought it would be nice to ease into the new year with a look at one of my Christmas presents (a gift from Mike, to Mike). The English subtitled DVD of Assembly. Chinese language aside I think the main problem to this becoming a hit in the Anglo-sphere is the title, I've watched it and enjoyed it yet I still have a mental image of filing into the school hall on a wet and cold September morning to listen to a boring story that had the moral changed to be more kid friendly.

But I digress, despite being very interested in films about the Revolutionary period in China I only heard about Assembly a month ago whilst browsing the friends of China blog. And I can honestly say it is the best film about the Chinese civil war and its aftermath that I have ever seen.

It tells the tale of Captain Gu Zidi and starts in the winter of 1948 with him leading his much reduced -due to constantly fighting off enemy offensives- company in the Chinese Peoples Liberation Army and there last mission which is to hold a mine and hill by the Wen RIver which has frozen enabling the enemy to begin crossing, in a rear guard action against a KMT or nationalist army offensive allowing the rest of the Army to strategically withdraw, Captain Gu and his 46 men are only to withdraw when they hear the Assembly bugle call signalling that the rest of the army is clear, unfortunately during the battle Gu and his political officer the only surviving and combat capable officers left suffer severe damage to there hearing whilst knocking out American made tanks the KMT deployed after there infantry failed to take the positions the previous night. This means that neither heard the assembly call and despite the few survivors claiming they did Captain Gu has no choice put to obey his orders and fight on.

That night the KMT launch there final offensive, and Gu and his man mine there positions and launch what looks to be a suicide charge. We then cut to Gu in an army hospital sometime later, one very significant problem with the film is that establishing text comes out in very big Mandarin characters but has the English translation directly below it in tiny font making it very hard to keep track of where the film moves too. Anyway Captain Gu survives but is the only one and it seems his commanding officers also perished not to long after the battle and his old army was broken down and reassigned leaving the Captain the only witness to the battle on the Wen River and with no way to prove that he was actually a member of the PLA, he is however able to get reassigned to an artillery regiment just in time for the Korean war.

After his that "adventure" Gu returns to China and tries to rectify the records about his old unit, there hard fought battle is not listed, and the deceased either don't exist according the PLA records or were listed as MIA meaning there relatives were entitled to only 200 pounds of rice in compensation rather then the 700 given out to the family of martyrs. For a number of years his quest is a total failure, he can't even find the actual battle site any more since the mine they sheltered in has been reopened with the old entrances being demolished sealing in his soldiers corpses and development has changed the surrounding landscape.

He does find the wife of his political officer, but that doesn't help much since he was transferred on Captain Gu's request from the punishment details for cowardice, meaning that there'll be no official evidence linking the officer to his old unit. After fruitless searching and deteriorating eyesight from an injury he acquired in Korea when a landmine exploded in his face whilst he was saving the soldier who had stood on it, decides to go to an old friend from the artillery regiment who is now a Colonel for help accessing the official archives. He also successful marries off the widow to the Colonel and takes a job at the base.

Overall though his stay with the Colonel is mixed, he is able to access the records and prove that he was the Captain of the 9th company which vindicates him personally, and he locates the memorial for his old army and even meets one of its few survivors the Bugler who due to injuries wasn't reassigned and stayed as a grounds-keeper to the memorial, he also learns that the guilt he felt for keeping his men in combat after the Assembly was called due to his poor hearing was unfounded, the Assembly was never called as Colonel Li the commanding officer decided to sacrifice the 9th company has it was tying up a lot more KMT troops then they thought allowing the rest of the army to withdraw. While this does enrage the Captain he does see the tactical sense, less then half a company for the rest of the army, but what he can't accept is that Li never got round to making sure high command knew about there last action, and just let them slip through the cracks.

In desperation Gu moves into the Wen river mine and begins digging up the hill side looking for some evidence that his unit was there. The local miners while supremely annoyed by this mad soldier getting in there way tolerate him and let him live in a shack and share there rations with him. Eventually after a month of this they find one of the bodies and the Military decide to confirm Captain Gu's story of the events and award his deceased unit full honours, years later when an irrigation project discovers the rest of the bodies a memorial is constructed giving Gu and the 9th company full vindication.

Action was the early battle scenes where very good, quite reminiscent of Saving Private Ryan or Enemy at the gates, the crew behind Assembly clearly know how to set up complex shots, and the sets from dugouts to 1960's PLA academies have a very authentic feel, the ruined towns of the 1940's look and feel miserable and shattered while the villages and towns in the spring of the 50's and 60's are bright and vibrant. Chinese cinema has come a long way from Hong Kong made Bruce Lee knock off's, I hope the sequel (in name only) gets released here soon as well as Founding of a Republic. Though some out there will probably have an issue with the films theme's which other then the PRC is great, though to be fair much of the plot is driven by a number of flaws within the system during the 50's and 60's,the film like does have a clear obeying authority is a positive vibe to it with Captain Gu's little "rebellions" against his bureaucratic obstacles coming off as slightly unhinged and tolerated because of his war sacrifices.

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