Starring: Huang Zhizhong, Zhang Junyi, Oho Ou
Director: Guan Hu
Running Time: 149 mins
The Eight Hundred is a Chinese film about a troop of 800 Chinese soldiers who find themselves holed up in a warehouse in Shanghai during the Japanese invasion. The last line of defence for the city, they try to hold their position against all odds, while the eyes of the world watch on.
As the film industry in China has boomed over the last ten years, action and historical epics have been some of the biggest money-makers out there, but the quality has always been really disappointing. The Eight Hundred, however, manages to blend the blockbuster appeal of the genre with great storytelling, and an unbeatable passion that makes it a hugely inspiring watch.
I’ll happily admit that I’ve been all too ready to criticise Chinese blockbusters like this in recent years. Particularly when dealing with 20th century history, the genre has sensationalised events with an over-reliance on action, far-fetched stories and excessive CGI in a way that’s very reminiscent of Hollywood in the late 1990s.
The Eight Hundred, however, sees Chinese war blockbusters turn a corner. While it isn’t a perfect film through and through, it’s a brilliantly exciting combination of the intensity of war, as well as the patriotic spirit that drives a nation to survive against all the odds.
For a film that largely takes place in one location – the warehouse and the riverfront across from it – it’s quite incredible just how dynamic The Eight Hundred is. It’s not a stationary, claustrophobic war thriller as you may expect, but an impressively sprawling epic that uses the context of the global political landscape of the era to great effect.
Along with the incredible bravery of the soldiers within the warehouse holding off attacks from the Japanese, the film pays heed to the wider historical context, and how these Chinese soldiers were almost left as pawns in a greater political game, with people in the British concession of Shanghai watching on from a close distance, but not becoming directly involved.
It’s a really interesting angle that offers up a thought-provoking perspective on the nature of the Sino-Japanese War, and how complicit Western powers were in the events that unfolded. Should the British have gone in to help the Chinese, or was that too big a price to pay by inviting Japanese aggression unto themselves?
One thing that’s for sure about The Eight Hundred is its immense, undying patriotic spirit. You don’t have to be Chinese to fall in love with this film’s passion, and even though it may at times go to rather far-fetched lengths to show off that intense love for its country, there are some really inspiring moments on a par with some of the greatest in war cinema, including Saving Private Ryan, Flags Of Our Fathers and Dunkirk.
Admittedly, The Eight Hundred doesn’t have the emotion of Saving Private Ryan, the detail of Flags Of Our Fathers, or the cinematic intensity of Dunkirk. As a result, it isn’t a masterpiece of war cinema, and it’s fair to say that its opening act is a little slow to get moving.
However, unlike so many big Chinese war epics of recent years that purely rely on big visual effects and constant action, The Eight Hundred is a really measured and well-made film.
What it lacks in character depth it makes up for in a collective emotional strength, and although it may not showcase the darker side of the war in a way like City Of Life And Death, it’s a really good combination of entertaining blockbuster action and worthy, powerful historical drama.
A slow starter it may be, but The Eight Hundred is an undeniably impressive watch, and easily one of the best modern Chinese war movies. Epic despite its stationary location, emotional and inspiring despite some character weaknesses, and thoroughly exciting with great, measured action, it’s a brilliant watch throughout, and that’s why I’m giving it a 7.9 overall.