(Originally written October 24, 2012)
Assembly was a movie I discovered by accident when surfing the Youtube one day. I found a music video using the battle scenes from this movie and I was wondering what the heck it was from as the footage looked a lot like the Battle of the Bulge scenes from Band of Brothers but with Chinese or Korean actors. After poking around in the comments and Wikipedia for a little bit, I discovered that Assembly is a Chinese movie made in 2007 and is hailed as one of the best mainland China produced films to date. I found it on Amazon and ordered it. After watching it I can see why it was so critically acclaimed. It has some of the best battle scenes I have seen since Band of Brothers and The Pacific. It has some amazing cinematography and while confusing in the middle, a very well done human element that ties the movie together well at the end.
The film starts off in 1948 during the Chinese Civil War with PLA Captain Gu Zidi (played by Zhang Hanyu) as his battered company takes a war torn town in the dead of winter. If you’ve seen Band of Brothers, it will remind you a lot of the Battle of the Bulge episodes. After taking the town with heavy losses, his company, now at only 50% strength, is ordered to hold the Battalion’s flank at an old mine near a river bank. He is ordered not to retreat until he hears the bugle call for assembly with the rest of the regiment. After a day of brutal fighting with Chinese Nationalist forces (yes, the good guys in this are the communists), the company has taken heavy losses and cannot hold out but the CO has yet to hear the bugle call so they can not retreat. The film then skips ahead to the Korean War which Gu is now taking part in. He serves as a forward observer and befriends a young artillery officer when he steps on a landmine and manages to save him from it with a pretty neat but suicidal trick. This scene is actually slightly funny as an American tank crew happens upon them however; they are dressed in South Korean uniforms so the Americans think they are friendly. The tank commander walks over to see what they are doing, sees the guy on the landmine and is like ‘oh shit! Well, that sucks. Good luck with that!’ gets back in his tank and drives off. This scene ends with you thinking that Gu dies with the mine going off. The movie then skips forward to the mid 50’s after the wars are over and Gu is revealed to still be alive but now blind in one eye from the injury he took from the mine. The officer he saved is now a high ranking officer in the PLA and is offering to help him with work and other needs. Gu then reveals that he was the lone survivor of the company that he commanded during the Civil War and has been living with this guilt since that day. He seeks to find the resting place of his men and to get full honors for his company however; the government is suspicious of what exactly happened to him after the battle and will not recognize him and his men’s actions during the war. Driven by outrage and guilt he tries to find where battlefield was, now a fully operation coal mine, and starts digging to find where the bodies of his fallen comrades are. This is where the film gets really depressing as many people dismiss him as a crazy old war vet but let him keep trying to do what he is going to do. After digging day and night, he learns that his company, and himself are finally given the honors they deserved all this time. A memorial is erected at the site and Gu finally has peace.
The strongest part of this film is the cinematography. Like I said before, the battle scenes are epic, brutal, and realistic. They definitely take cues from movies and series like Band of Brothers and Saving Private Ryan but it’s not only the battle scenes that are well shot. There are beautiful and creative camera angles throughout the film including a beautiful shot of the memorial at the opening and closing of the film. It does climax early though; all the battle scenes are in the first hour of the film and, like most war movies, are the best scenes. The middle of film is kind of confusing as it jumps around the years for a little bit but it does all come together by the end. Like a lot of war films, there are some clichés like the soldiers sneaking on the battlefield to steal things from a dead enemy officer only to get shot by a sniper once finding what he was looking for and little things like that but it doesn’t harm anything other than the fact that you can see it coming. The acting is generally very good, especially Zhang Hanyu’s star performance. Obviously, this movie is in Mandarin Chinese as it should be. The bluray I have only had subtitles and I don’t think it has been dubbed and, well, it shouldn’t be.
One very strong point of the film is that even though it is a patriotic film about China it never loses sight of the human element in this movie. The characters are the main focal point here and what the main character goes through. There are some scenes that probably wouldn’t have set too well with the Chinese government had this movie come out a couple decades ago. That said, you might want to go into this movie after doing a little research on the Chinese Civil War and post WWII China as it doesn’t give very much context to go by if you’re not a Chinese history buff. One thing that caught my eye in the film was the weapons they used. They use a mixture of WWII era British, Russian, and German rifles and machine guns while the Nationalists used mostly American weapons and equipment which is another interesting point to research about the war.
Overall, I’d say this is a must watch if you are a fan of war movies, Chinese movies, and foreign films. I’m not sure if it’s on Netflix or anything like that. I bought it off Amazon for about $17 imported (and that’s a good price for an import). While the middle is a bit confusing and you might want to do some research going in, the first hour and ending of the movie is amazing and I gotta say, it is one of the best war movies I’ve ever seen. I highly recommend it if you can find it.