The Eight Hundred Movie Review

The Eight Hundred, It’s always tough to make a war film, especially one that’s based on historical events. Get too much wrong, and the audience will dismiss it. Try to be historical accurate, and you risk either the movie being boring, or it telling a very lop-sided story.

The Eight Hundred plays somewhere in the middle. Based on a real event, but with clear dramatization added. An extremely hyped movie, starring a strong cast of well known Chinese actors and directed by the man behind the fantastic Mr Six, it was a box office smash hit when released in August, a rarity in a year of 2020. Chinese war action drama film The Eight Hundred.

STORYLINE

As mentioned, The Eight Hundred is based on the historical incident that occurred at the Sihang Warehouse on November 1, 1937. A group of rag-tag leftovers from other defeated regiments, as well as able bodied men marked as deserters, held strong in the fortified warehouse on the banks of the Suzhou River in Shanghai. Across the river was what was known as the “concessions”. An area full of international citizens where the Japanese were trying to avoid conflict, not wanting a stray bullet to strike an American or Englishman and start a new war. “The Eight Hundred” is actually a group of approximately 450 soldiers, with their number inflated by their commander in order to appear bigger than what they were.

The full historical story of the Eight Hundred Heroes can be found online and is well worth reading about. Thus, this movie attempts to retell that story but following a select group of individuals, some capable of fighting, some scared of battle, some just young boys or others just an accountant.

We view the movie through their eyes, and the viewpoints of several Chinese citizens living in the concessions zone of Shanghai, over four days as it reaches November 1, and the final stand against the Japanese.

IS IT WORTH WATCHING?

If you like war movies, then this is an absolute must watch. Unfortunately, due to censorship, in this case the role of the political leaders of China at the time, the movie you will see is not the version the director intended you to see. A reported 12 minutes was removed from the original cut, with additional scenes in the movie cropped or reframed to remove certain insignia or references.

The Eight Hundred 2020
The Eight Hundred 2020

The most obvious being the Nationalists flag, which is what we would currently know today as the Taiwanese flag. Other than the scene of the men raising and defending the flag, there is never a close up or description given, and it’s really obvious. It’s unashamedly patriotic, but what’s refreshing about this patriotism is that it’s not afraid to talk about the losses that China suffered in battle. Having said that, the China that’s portrayed in this movie, is not modern-day China. The Chinese army that yielded territory to the Japanese is the NRA, the National Revolutionary Army which no longer exists. The modern-day army is the PLA, and if this event happened to them, there is no way this movie gets made.

There’s also a strong international flavour within the crew of the film. While there are scenes of English-dialogue spread throughout, of which the acting is of debatable quality, it’s the production crew that shows its international tastes. British composer Rubert Gregson-Williams worked on the score alongside American Andrew Kawczynski, Italian opera signer Andrea Bocelli performs the theme song alongside China’s Na Ying, while the special effects were done by India’s Double Negative effects and Anibrain Digital Technologies, Australia’s Rising Sun Pictures and Fin Design and Effects, American studio The Third Floor and Bangkok-based The Monk Films, among local Chinese visual effects teams. It’s an impressive international effort, and we all deserve to see eventually the original Director’s vision of this film.

MEMORABLE MOMENTS

This is a 150-minute film, so finding select memorable moments are tough, so I’ll just mention scenes that stuck the most in my head. Like all war movies, it’s the ensemble that tends to be the most memorable. This movie is no different with its diverse range of characters from the soldiers and their commanders, to the characters who live on the concessions side of the river.

The casino owner and her brother who ultimately risks his life to deliver a telephone. The out-of-work university professor and his nagging wife who defiantly shoots his shotgun in the air in support of the soldiers. The street performers who add some colour to dour moments, and importantly the young girl scout and the journalist who risks everything to cross the bridge to deliver hope, messages and the flag. The action scenes are bloody but ultimately play a secondary role in the film.

The Eight Hundred War Movie
The Eight Hundred War Movie

This movie is about the people and their achievements, not about who they killed. While dripping in patriotism, the scene of the soldiers valiantly keeping the Nationalistic flag held high while they’re under attack from a Japanese aircraft is ultimately the scene of the movie.

NOT SO HOT!

However, if you asked me to tell you more about the soldiers, who they were and what they were doing there, I ultimately couldn’t tell you much. And that is this movie biggest flaw, and biggest weakness.

We don’t know who these soldiers are. We don’t know enough about them to care when they are injured or killed. Indeed for me, the connection was with the actors playing the characters, Yi Zhang, Vision Wei and Wang Qianyuan. I know who these actors are, so I don’t want them to die. But their characters? We just don’t learn enough, and when we do learn more about it, it comes in the final third of the film as they prepare for their last stand. There-in lies another problem with this film, and that’s the first hour. While the movie is thrilling, and grips you to the edge of your seat, the first hour is a rather mish-mash of stuff just going on.

This could come down to a few issues. The first could be the censorship, the second could be the fact that the version I viewed did not translate the opening story, meaning I was already behind on knowing what was going on. The proper international version most likely fixes this issue though. But as I approached the 45-minute mark of the movie, my thoughts were who are all these people, what are they doing here and what is going on. Another scene that must be mentioned is when the commander of the Eight Hundred meets with the commander of the Japanese army.

This almost comical scene, where both men are on horseback while their sidekicks stand next them, feels very much out of place. And most of that is due to Japanese character and how he is made to look weak and pathetic, almost begging the Chinese commander to surrender. If anything was going to be cut out or at least edited down, it probably should have been this scene. Just establish that the Japanese army were going to conduct one last heavy assault and leave it at that.

Finally, another patriotic scene leaves a dry taste in your mouth. And that’s the conversation that occurs towards the end when the Chinese commander is being told to surrender the building, with his superior giving him a lecture about “we don’t know what kind of China we will have in the future” being a rather unnecessary piece of propaganda dialogue.

OVERALL?

But the negatives are definitely not a dealbreaker that should stop you from watching and enjoying this film, they’re just considerations for you to keep in the back of your mind. This is a fantastic piece of Chinese cinema, even with all the constraints imposed upon it.

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