Perhaps the highest compliment that can be paid to Feng Xiaogang’s The Assembly, a film built around Communist Chinese military campaigns of the forties and fifties, is that he has created a film that completely and utterly transcends politics. Technically astounding, with battle sequences orchestrated by the team behind Korean hit Taegukgi - sequences that match or beat anything ever put on screen by big budget Hollywood, Saving Private Ryan included – the heart of the film never gets lost in the spectacle, the soul of the piece anchored in an astounding central performance from Zhang Hanyou.
Zhang is Gu Zidi, a captain in what would become the People’s Liberation Army, leading a squad of troops in the late forties’ civil war against Nationalist forces. We first meet Captain Gu and his men in mid-campaign, laying siege to a Nationalist-held small town. We enter the film just on time for the final assault and that assault makes it immediately apparent that Feng’s film is head and shoulders above any other Chinese war film ever produced.
You are struck first by the incredible technical proficiency of the film: the images on screen are simply staggering, the nervous energy of the sequence perfectly mirroring the mixture of fear and bravado driving the soldiers, the handheld cameras and bleached aesthetics capturing the incredible chaos of battle, the sharp editing bringing order to the chaos as the film introduces each of the key characters of the squad through a series of key moments. So the technical achievement here is simply stunning but what is equally impressive is that it is clear from the outset that Feng has accomplished the seemingly impossible: he has found a way to navigate the tricky political minefield that is film making in mainland China. The nation has a seemingly never-ending series of restrictions on what can and can’t be said, restrictions that you would expect to be crippling to a film built specifically around this particular war, and yet Feng finds his way through by focusing on his characters rather than the politics and apparently using his own commercial success as a form of political currency that allows him to portray his characters as realistically flawed.
And those flaws are what lift this film ultimately above the crowd. At the end of that first assault, Gu, driven by grief at seeing one of his officers blown to pieces before his eyes, orders the prisoners taken to be executed – an order his men refuse. As the film progresses throughout the war sequences that follow, both civil war campaigns and Korean War campaigns afterwards, there is constant back and forth between the men and leadership with flaws apparent on both sides. That simple willingness to critique the decisions of those in power is a rarity in mainland Chinese film and one that Feng is to be commended for. And the questioning of authority becomes all the more potent as the film progresses beyond the war sequences that dominate its opening half and moves into the later years of Gu’s life. Captain Gu is left to deal with the trauma of his war years and is driven to find both the bodies of his slain squad and official recognition for their sacrifice, recognition denied for years by a bloated bureaucracy that seems disinterested in the men that fell to create and preserve it.
Because of its focus on men and sacrifice rather than politics and power, The Assembly finds a sort of universal relevance. It rings home because everyone everywhere can understand what these men went through and how horrific it was. These are common soldiers, and like most – if not all – common soldiers they are ultimately little concerned with the politics behind their orders: they simply want to stay alive. Gu’s later quest for recognition and honour is one that, likewise, taps a universal truth: agree with the politics of the nation or not, everybody can understand that men who sacrificed themselves for others deserve better than to be ignored and forgotten. The Assembly is one potent piece of work, quite simply the strongest of Feng’s career.