One Man’s Battle: The Unappreciated Depth of Feng Xiaogang’s Assembly

For a literature course at the Chinese University I’m crrently teaching at, I decided to make the course about Chinese and American blockbuster movies instead. For the genre of War dramas, I put Saving Private Ryan for the American film and Feng Xiaogang’s Assembly (集结号, lit. “assembly signal”) for the Chinese one. While reading up on Assembly, I got the impression that most Western reviewers didn’t really get the point of the film, and especially when they compare it to Saving Private Ryan, they feel that Assembly is lacking. Most reviews seem to laud the technical aspect of the film and praise the heroism of its characters, but are uncomfortable with what they believe is yet another propaganda film saying how wonderful it would be to sacrifice yourself for the Communist government. Actually, I think the message of the film is exactly the opposite, and that the film techniques from Saving Private Ryan is used in a more compelling way.

Assembly was released in 2007 and apparently it was very popular in China, earning a hundred and eighty million RMB after running in the theatres for a few months (Baidu). Feng Xiaogang is also a very established filmmaker, though usually his focus has been dramas involving people in everyday life, like Cell Phone and If You Are the One, and most recently noted on an international scale, Aftershock. There are some things about Feng’s filmmaking that I personally aren’t used to, like the pacing [1] – for example, it’s not a Western storytelling pattern to have a climactic battle 1/3 of the way through the movie and spend the rest of the movie on character digging up a coal mine, but this is a cultural difference that I can’t count against him. Anyway, the story of Assembly is that Gu Zidi, an illiterate commander of a People’s Liberation Army Company, decides to fight to the last man during a battle against the Kuomingtang’s superior forces at an old abandoned mining site; he is the sole survivor, and spends the rest of his life trying to find a place for himself in a post-war China and prove that his company did in fact fight to the last man and didn’t desert or defect. The story pivots on the call to assembly, from the main forces behind them, that would tell his company to retreat, which his superior commander tells him to listen for (they had no radios for communication, by the way – the PLA was rather poor). Due to a blast from an enemy tank close to Gu, he couldn’t hear anything for a while, and while some of his soldiers say they heard the call to assembly, others say they didn’t. Since he is the commander, the decision rests with him, and he decides to stay.

One thing I agree with most reviewers on is that there is displays of heroism and personal growth during war represented in Assembly. Since I had it compared to Saving Private Ryan, I showed students the way Upham in SPR was too afraid to intervene in the knife fight between Mellish and a Nazi soldier, leading to Mellish’s death, and then at the end where Upham shoots “Steamboat Willie” at point blank range for reuniting with his fellow Nazi soldiers and helping to get Captain Miller killed.

Wang Jincun emerging from the trenches to shoot at a tank

Similarly, in Assembly, Gu Zidi picks up a timid man called Wang Jincun as his political commissar (the man in charge of administration and ideology in a PLA company), who at first couldn’t even look at a dead body (33:20), but in the end saw so many of his comrades die that he risks his life shooting at a tank (50:30) and agrees to blow himself up along with the mine (1:53:15).  So, in terms of identifying Assembly as a war movie that glorifies heroism and sacrifice, I don’t disagree.

What Western reviews of the film concentrate on is limited to just this heroism, and refer to it as conventionally following better war films or criticising it as being part of Communist propaganda. Perry Lam’s review in Muse apparently says that the filmmakers put “bad faith and naiveté” in “the value of unquestioning obedience to authority and sacrifice as the highest manifestation of patriotism” (can’t get at original article, only Wikipedia entry for this source). The best praise other reviews seem to offer is along the lines of, China has finally decided to show each individual small human being instead of the power of the masses, like Kozo’s review on LoveHKfilm.com, saying that the human element is the focus, but “there’s nothing complex or challenging here.” The review on Twitch was at best an apologist for the film, saying “Every nation has its war stories, and the way these stories are told are as varied as the nations from which they originate. Thus, to criticize Assembly for not addressing specific political issues is to hold the film to a standard to which few films are held.”

I believe that Assembly does exactly what the Twitch review says it doesn’t, which is that it does address political issues. While it does glorify heroism and sacrifice, if that was its only focus it should have ended after an hour. As I said in comments on the pacing of Assembly, the climactic battle starts 30 minutes into the film and then ends halfway through, and the rest is about Gu trying to prove his company’s heroism. After the battle, the audience is given a title card saying that all of the 9th company died except for Gu; then the next scene is Gu in an infirmary for POWs, wearing clothes belonging to KMT soldiers that he stole, and having the infirmary administration threatening to kick him out because they can’t verify his identity. It turns out later that no one can confirm his company’s existence because shortly after the battle at the mine, massive personnel changes took place, and no one can prove how his company died because their bodies were never found. Their families received less compensation for being MIA (vs. KIA), and are suspected to have deserted. He rejoins the army and is sent to North Korea. There he saves the life of his commanding officer, Zhao Erdou, who in return helps him track down his company; he also runs into Wang Jincun’s widow, who heard that Wang was executed by his superiors, and joins him to clear his name.

The second half of the movie is important because it’s not about heroism and sacrifice on the battlefield, but persistence and resolve in dealing with inconsistency, insincerity and bureaucracy on the part of the leadership.

Looking at this as a still picture now, the chair actually looks like it’s going to go into Mao’s face.

The first kick in the teeth is in the infirmary, when an officer tells him that he’s met many men about Gu’s age who pretend to be soldiers so that they could get cheat the military for benefits (1:02:30). Then, when Zhao finally arranges a meeting with the party officials (1:30:40), they return to questioning Gu’s identity, accusing him of possibly being captured by the KMT before the PLA found him and hence possibly a traitor, when Gu has explained that he took a dead KMT soldier’s clothing because he was cold. The meeting ends with Gu throwing a chair at the Party official(!)What was worst started off as good news. The Party finally finds traces of the 9th company, the bugler who was supposed to be the one who blue the assembly call, now working as a groundskeeper in a memorial cemetery. He tells Gu the truth – the call to assembly was never sounded, because their overall commander decided to let Gu’s company sacrifice themselves while they retreated. So the situation was two disasters multiplied; Gu and the good nature of his company was taken advantage of on the battlefield without him knowing, and then the Party refused to acknowledge their sacrifice. In the end, Gu returns to the mine, which is completely covered, and takes it upon himself to dig up his company’s bodies. An official tells him to write letters to his superiors (1:40:55), but he says “I’ve already written nine.”

Full sentence: “Their parents gave them all names…how did they become nameless men?”

Perhaps the scene that best shows the predicament of those who sacrificed themselves is a scene of a makeshift gravesite of nameless soldiers, each with a piece of wood above their graves marked “nameless hero” (1:21:00). Alone, it speaks to the horrors of war, where soldiers die and cannot be identified and of course there are such sites in any war-torn country. But as a film, this scene can be compared to the neat rows of the Normandy gravesite shown in Saving Private Ryan, where Ryan, as an old man, can still identify the gravestone of Captain Miller. What comes from this comparison is not just that the soldiers in Assembly have not been identified, but in context of what has happened to Gu, perhaps the country didn’t care enough to identify them. After all, the whole basis of Saving Private Ryan is…saving Private Ryan, which was an edict issued by the Secretary of State. In Assembly the equivalent organization took decades just to ascertain that Gu’s company were indeed not deserters. Maybe it’s because I’m Chinese and not American, but when I watched Saving Private Ryan, I did admire the soldiers and felt very upset on their behalf, but I not to the extent about what was happening to Gu Zidi. Also, the film makes it clear that Gu is not alone. When Gu returns to the site of the battle after returning from North Korea, the PLA is handing out compensation to the local families who had lost soldiers in the battle (1:14:50). In a seemingly arbitrary fashion, the PLA officer lists one man as KIA and gives his family 700 jin (weight measurement, about 500g) of rice, but then lists several men as MIA and only gives their families 200, despite protests from the crowd. To reinforce this point, a soldier tells Gu over a meal how unfair it is that two soldiers who died with his brother were identified as KIA but his brother wasn’t. For me, this makes the film compelling, because it shows the kind of arbitrary decisions that the average Chinese citizen has to put up with on a daily basis. This I think is the point of the movie, and the first half of the film was just to establish the sacrifice of Gu and his company, so that the betrayal of the Party is that much worse in the second half.

Another criticism from Western reviews, which is mostly Lam’s Muse review about the technical expertise being sophisticated while the ideology was hamfisted, I also take issue with. A lot of people compare Assembly to Saving Private Ryan, and I can see why; SPR shows many sequences filmed in a very in-situ manner, such as making the camera shake as it follows Captain Miller up the beach in Normandy, or cutting off the sound when he is witnessing the beach landing massacre, and at the end again when a tank fires at him beside the bridge he is defending. SPR was revolutionary because it is about “one man,” and not necessarily Ryan; it is about the personal, subjective experiences of soldiers on the battlefield, and taking this humble position paradoxically but successfully makes it more heroic than if it was trying to tout abstract patriotic truths. The cinematography and the sound editing reflect this; the camera does not try to establish what is “true” in war, but instead it of often takes the point of view of a soldier, and implies that this limited perspective is all we can know about what happened. This is what you should have seen if you followed Captain Miller; this is what Captain Miller would have actually heard after the tank fired. The objective truth of the moment is that there is sound in the world, but Miller’s subjective truth is that he can’t hear anything. Thus, the film is unified in its message and execution, and therefore it is successful.

The audience can see similar techniques in Assembly, especially when a shell renders Gu temporarily deaf, and the audience cannot hear anything either, aligning them with Gu’s experiences. While these techniques are also present in Assembly, they are far from derivative because they carry a strong political message that is extremely relevant to Chinese society and politics. In SPR, the subjectivity of the film techniques establishes a general idea that individuals cannot pin down something as big and complex as war, much less pin any truth on war (eg. the justice of sending men to die to rescue one man is questioned but never conclusively answered). In Assembly, the idea is a lot more specific. The one-party system in China has essentially asserted for many years the idea that what the Party dictates is the absolute truth, and of course this is an extremely arrogant assertion. The story of Assembly already shows one man struggling against the Party, and his complaint is essentially that his personal knowledge of his company’s sacrifice doesn’t fit in with the party’s official truth. In this way, all the film techniques on the side of subjectivity in this film implicitly supports Gu over the Party. At the end of the film, Zhao manages to locate the commissar of the main forces and the Party acknowledges that the 9th company died as heroes, however what is interesting is that Gu, who has spend months digging by himself in the mine by now, no longer seems to have public approval as his goal. When he hears the news, his response is, “My brothers, why can’t I find you? Come out for a breath of air” (1:50:40).

The film ends with the bodies being discovered years later during a reservoir construction, and there is a ceremony honouring the 9th company. At the end of the ceremony, the bugler, who is also present, is asked to sound the bugle call. The impression I personally get from the ending is not that the Party is wonderful in doing justice to Gu Zidi and his soldiers, but almost a “too little, too late” kind of feeling. If the assembly call had been actually blown during the battle, i.e. if the 9th company hadn’t been treated like insignificant sacrifices, , then Gu’s life would have been significantly better. A quotation taken from Feng on Baidu says that “This film is not meant to explore themes like the value and meaning of sacrifice and so forth, but personally, it’s a story about a wronged hero who has to endure an eternity of being misunderstood” [2, link]. Also from the Baidu website is a summary of how critics in China have reviewed the film, and one prevailing idea is that “this is a movie for anyone who feels they have been treated unfairly” (link to section). Given my last 5 posts about the state of China, this is practically the whole population. Here is a page on a Baidu page (link)sort of like Yahoo! Answers, and the question was “What do you think about the film Assembly? / We need to respect history…” and the answer with 18 more approvals is “I’ve watched Assembly, and the Party’s unreliable” (the two phrases actually rhymes in Chinese, making the remark humorous in a flippant sort of way). The response to this comment is “I see this comrade has got the point, thanks everyone.” I think the lack of faith in the Communist Party is one reason this film is popular in China. Contrary to Western reviews, it’s not because this film has a safe and happy message, but that it is borderline radical and speaks to buried radical feelings that Chinese citizens have. I especially wanted to get his posted on June 4, which helps reinforce the point of the film. After all, on this day, university students who wanted to make China better died. Even worse than Gu Zidi, the Party not only refused to acknowledge their sacrifice, and then them and their families as criminals, but was the ones who issued the order to kill them in the first place.

Lastly, I hope western reviewers stop looking at Chinese media in a unilateral way and label everything as propaganda. This is unfair to the filmmakers who are in fact risking their careers and trying to get their message across at all, and also unfair to the citizens, who are clearly not cultural dupes.

Notes:

[1]one thing I noticed from watching Chinese movies is that Chinese cinema and drama aren’t affected by Aristotle’s three Unities (action, time, and place) as Western drama and cinema are. I can’t say this is a failing – it’s just a cultural difference that I’m not used to. Western audiences expect movies and stories that follow Freytag’s Pyramid with tight sequence and a climax 4/5 of the way through, but that’s just one storytelling mode.
Time-wise, Chinese movies sometimes talk about a series of events happening over a long time, to the point where the audience feels like they’re watching 20-minute episodes in a miniseries. Action-wise, they also sometimes bring in seemingly pointless characters that seem to do nothing to advance the main plot (this is especially true if you’re watching an adaptation of one of the 4 Chinese classics, like Three Kingdoms or The Water Margin. I couldn’t stand watching The Water Margin especially, because there would be 3 episodes on one character in the beginning, and just when I thought he was the main character, there were 20 episodes about other characters, and then by episode 23 we went back to the first character and I’d already forgotten who he was, and he was one of the main characters after all). Assembly has this trait – Wang’s widow seems to serve no function, and she gets married with Zhao Erdou after no character development on their part. Though I suppose thematically she’s another person wronged by the government, indirectly.

[2] 这部影片并非为了探讨牺牲的价值和意义这种形而上的主题,在自己的心目中,这就是一个在漫长的岁月中不被人理解的“英雄受了委屈的故事”

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