Film Review: Chinese War Epic “The Eight Hundred”

the eight hundred 2020 film movie poster one sheet reviewWhen the historical war drama The Eight Hundred was released in China last year, it did incredibly well at the box office, even in the midst of a pandemic. It’s not hard to see why: With top-notch production values, it retells the story of a pivotal 1937 battle from the Second Sino-Japanese War when the Japanese were invading Shanghai, China. The Japanese troops had possession of all Shanghai except for Sihang Warehouse, defended by a lone Chinese regiment ordered to fight the Japanese Imperial troops and thereby win sympathy from the international community. The 542nd Regiment of the Chinese Resistance Army (NRA) was made up of about 800 soldiers, deserters, students, and other rag-tag Chinese citizens, and what made the whole situation surreal was that just across Suzhou Creek was one of the foreign “concessions”, areas controlled by Western powers and ostensibly safe zones.

There’s lots to admire in this action and drama-filled war epic that explores how these 800 men managed to hold off the Japanese troops for four days even when completely outnumbered and outgunned. It’s also rather sporadically jingoistic in a way that parallels the melodramatic heroism of Americans in an American war drama: Everyone’s noble, everyone sacrifices for the greater good, even the deserters come around and in the end, they’re all heroes. Which isn’t to say that these soldiers weren’t heroic, but The Eight Hundred is old school war heroism and it gets a bit over the top at moments later in the film.

What’s most striking about the situation, however, is that these foreign safe zones are just a hundred yards across a river from this intense and deadly battle. The Concession areas are full of nightclubs, gambling houses, restaurants, and, of course, Westerners and local Chinese seeking their fortune. It’s like finding a 5-star restaurant in the middle of a slum and it’s astonishing. You can see what I mean in this publicity still from the film:

the eight hundred 2020 film - publicity still

The film is beautifully shot in crisp, bright, and vivid colors – it’s the first Chinese production 100% filmed in IMAX – and much credit is due cinematographer Yu Cao and the splendid visual effects by a mixed Sino-American team of special effects companies. It’s also unsurprisingly violent and gory, with every bullet shot denoted by a splash of blood and frequent close-ups of injured, dying, and dead soldiers.

The narrative unfolds on a day-by-day basis and there are a lot of characters to track, so many so that it becomes a bit of a blur. There’s the plucky young boy who somehow tagged along with his older brother, the officer who is so heroic he might as well be an action figure stand-in, the deserters who just want to get home to mama, the young man who has a mysterious bond with a white horse that, for some reason, keeps running around the war zone, and many, many more. The Japanese are completely undeveloped characters (as is typical of enemy combatants in a war film) and the Americans are mostly portrayed as nitwit reporters more interested in getting a good camera angle than having any emotional response to the situation. Interestingly, the British are portrayed in a good light: The Concession area just across the river was also British.

A good comparison for The Eight Hundred might be Dunkirk for the themes of resolve, courage, and heroism, and it’s impossible to avoid comparison with the much more fantastical comic-book-esque 300 for its story of courage when grossly outnumbered in a military skirmish. More importantly, I felt The Eight Hundred was a very good, very powerful movie offering a comfortable tale of heroism well told on screen for Chinese viewers and an interesting (albeit confusing) history lesson for Western viewers. It’s a long film with a 147 minute running time for the International release and you can find it currently playing on Netflix, possibly under its original Chinese name Ba Bai.

Dad At The Movies Addendum: Like any war film, this is one that’s going to prove too intense for younger viewers. I would say teens will find it fascinating and exciting, but will likely miss the nuances of the soldiers managing to hold the Warehouse against overwhelming odds. It’s also violent, gory, and melodramatic at moments. It is, however, a good reminder of the egalitarian horrors of war and in that way could be a good conversation starter for your family.

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