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Vol. 8, No. 2, 2009
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Robert J. Lewis
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Sylvain Richard
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4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days
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Leaving the Fold
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Beneath the Rooftops of Paris

Feng Xiaogang's




Sylvain RichardSylvain Richard is a film critic at Arts & Opinion. He gave Assembly, which played at Montreal's 2008 Fantasia Film Festival, 3.4 out of 4 stars. For the rest of his ratings, click HERE.


The 'assembly' refers to the call of the bugle to retreat and regroup. This is the call Captain Gu Zidi (Zhang Hanyu) and his 47 men of the 9th Company, 3rd Batallion, 139th Regiment, are keenly listening out for as they go about their mission in ill-equipped fashion, holding fort on a strategic plain. Sent to the frontlines for war crimes, Captain Gu and his men, while being the best at trench warfare, find themselves severely lacking in essentials -- manpower, ammunition and heavy weaponry, as they go up against the marauding forces of the Nationalist army, with their superior armour. But Captain Zidi is from the old school -- only the bugle will keep them from prosecuting their mission objectives at all costs.

Assembly, directed by Feng Xiaogang, honours the spirit of the unit, its tales of bravery and unflinching courage against insurmountable odds. If you're looking for a top-notch war movie, Assembly, at least for the first hour, will not disappoint. Told in three acts, the first act -- all 60 minutes of it -- is where the action takes place. The war sequences aren't poetic in the style of Terence Mallick's The Thin Red Line, but have been fashioned after Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan with its gritty realism, strained colours and bloody, gory violence.

War movies, as a rule, put us in the shoes of aggressors, and invite us to follow an assault team. Very rarely are we set in trenches, on the defensive, as in the film Iwo Jima where the viewer is made to soak up wave after wave of attack. And that's where Assembly shines, in featuring four intense battle sequences, three of which are defensive, while the other, which is an assault, focuses more on the losing end as well as the plight of the victims.

The details of the war and its equipment are shown to great effect: from the single bolt weapon, the primitive artillery and its deployment to the highly affecting sharing of tin helmets. You might find yourself wondering why the PLA was so equipmentally challenged given the world's technological advancement in military ordnance n the West/Japan during the 1940s.

In the context of Clint Eastwood’s double, Flags of our Fathers and Letters from Iwa Jima, Assembly combines what is best in both movies and provides an in-depth look at the battles fought, as well as the down time between battles where soldiers are obliged to contemplate matters of life and death.

In the second and last acts which take up the remaining hour, we follow Captain Gu as he attempts to get his company recognized for the contribution it made, no matter how minuscule it might seem compared to the helicopter view of achievements. If the second half of the film can be accused of wanting in action, it is rescued by one man’s relentless fight for the recognition of his lost comrades, and as such, comprises the perfect denouement for a film that recommends itself for the handling of its complex material.

Assembly is unapologetically an ambitious film, combining action and existential drama that make for the ugly and heart wrenching truths of all wars. Kudos go to actor Zhang Hanyu who plays Captain Gu, who, in fighting for his place in history as well as against the system that would rather squash the hard fought truths of war, is a tour de force throughout the entire film.

Assembly is yet another reason why Chinese cinema is among the very best in the world.

For the ratings of Montreal's 2008 Fantasia Film Festival, click HERE.
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