TL;DR – A look at the side of WW2 that does not get shown often, which is full of moments that overwhelm you but also full of awkwardness.
Post-Credit Scene – There is a mid-credit scene
If there is one conflict that has been extensively explored on screen, it is World War Two. Indeed in 2017, we got three different films that explored Dunkirk. Even with all of this coverage, there are still aspects of WWII that have not received the same attention. One of those aspects is the Chinese front which is where our film is set. It started years before the main war and went on to the very end, but we don’t explore it nearly enough. Well, today we look at a film that is trying to change this, and a film backed by the juggernauts of Tencent and Alibaba.
So to set the scene, we open with the collapse of the front lines of the National Revolutionary Army during The Battle of Shanghai. With the Imperial Japanese Army taking the outskirt town of Dachang the city has been lost. However, there is still hope in the retreat. The Revolutionary Army decides to leave a small contingent of troops behind at Sihang Warehouse led by Colonel Xie Jinyuan (Du Chun). They aim to stall the Imperial Army long enough to allow for the retreat of the rest of the army. The second aim is to be an example to the Western powers that have not yet picked a side. This is because the Warehouse is situated right next to the International Settlement in Shanghai, so for one brief moment, the whole world is focused on them. Now because this is a film based on a real event, we will be discussing parts of the plot in a little more depth than we usually would, so please be careful as there may be some [SPOILERS] ahead.
I should mention from the start that while my educational background is in History and Asian Politics, I had not heard about this specific battle before walking into the cinemas. After watching the film, I did do some research because I wanted to see how close the film mapped to the real event. Overall from what I can tell, the film is an accurate portrayal of the circumstances surrounding the Warehouse. The only significant difference between the two is that like Hacksaw Ridge, some elements have been amped up for the movie, like the number of deaths. This is not a significant issue, because while some scenes are elevated from reality, the real essence of the events remains intact.
The first thing you see with The Eight Hundred and one of the things that continues throughout the movie is just how much work has gone into the sets. In the first moments of the film we walk into a devastated Dachang, it is only seen for a brief window of time, but you feel that place that once was alive and now is dead. The Warehouse itself is very utilitarian, but you feel the weight of every beam, the thickness of the walls, and also every opening that could lead to death. All of this concrete grey could have been overwhelming from a colour palate perspective. Still, it is always and in many cases hauntingly juxtaposed with the lights and colour of the International Settlement across the creek. While it is clear that they have used set extensions in places, it is also clear that a lot of that Settlement is a practical set and the film is better for it. All of this helps sell every action scene because you feel the space, understand the dimensions, and the precariousness of every moment. It is also highlighted by these moments where they show footage captured in the style of cameras back in that time.
Now to be clear, this is a hard film to watch at times, because this is war and people die, often in confronting and useless ways. This is where you will emotionally engage with the film or not, and for me, it was the first. To be perfectly honest there were a few times throughout this film that I found myself in tears, including one part where someone sacrifices themselves to save everyone, or the students that get in over their heads, or that moment you knew was coming but it still hit hard. What makes it all the harder to watch is knowing that it the defence of the Warehouse didn’t do what it was meant to do as none of the European powers intervened. There are moments in the film that have weight just by being there. The moment someone mentions Nanjing, you could feel the tension in the room as that name hit everyone. It is these moments and the acting and staging around them that makes The Eight Hundred stand out. This is led by a command performance by Du Chun who plays the leader of the squadron Lieutenant Colonel Xie Jinyuan.
While on the whole, it was a well-acted and produced film. Some awkward moments held it back from being as good as it could have been. One of the early plot points of the film is that a bunch of deserters (some actual deserters some just caught up in the haphazard retreat) are brought to the Warehouse instead of being summarily executed. Because this group is not dressed in the same strict military attire, they become the feature players of the first half of the film. However during this time, these characters are mostly used for comic relief, sometimes straight-up slapstick comedy. This creates an odd juxtaposition throughout the film until it rights itself about halfway through. One example that stood out was reminiscent of a moment from the film Fury. In this moment, characters commit war crimes against captured prisoners of war but people in the audience found it amusing. There was also some tonal quirks given this is a film venerating Chinese Republic forces created in current Communist China. Some characters are given motivations that don’t seem to pan out in their real lives post this incident but fit nicely with communist critiques of the Republican government. This muddies the water of what should be a very straight forward and powerful narrative.
In the end, do we recommend The Eight Hundred? Yes, yes we would. It is not a perfect film. However, when it works, it is incredible to watch. It hits the emotion when it needs to and is a solid action film to boot. The fact that this is all based on a real moment in history makes it work even more. If you like war films or films that explore history, then this should be a must-watch for you. If you liked The Eight Hundred, I would also recommend 1917.
By Brian MacNamara: You can follow Brian on Twitter Here, when he’s not chatting about Movies and TV, he’ll be talking about International Relations, or the Solar System.
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Credits – All images were created by the cast, crew, and production companies of The Eight Hundred
Directed by – Guan Hu
Written by – Guan Hu & Ge Rui
Music by – Rupert Gregson-Williams & Andrew Kawczynski
Cinematography by – Cao Yu
Edited by – Yiran Tu & He Yongyi
Production/Distribution Companies – Huayi Brothers, Tencent Pictures, Beijing Enlight Media, Alibaba Pictures & CMC Pictures Holdings
Starring – Du Chun, Huang Zhizhong, Zhang Junyi, Oho Ou, Zhang Cheng, Wang Qianyuan, Jiang Wu, Zhang Yi, Zhang Youhao, Vision Wei, Tang Yixin, Li Jiuxiao, Augusta Xu-Holland, Liang Jing, Hou Yong, Li Chen, Yu Kailei, Xin Baiqing, Cao Weiyu, Ma Jingwu, Yu Haoming, Liu Xiaoqing, Yao Chen, Zheng Kai & Huang Xiaoming
Rating – Australia: MA15+; Canada: 14A;